Did you know that some of (or the?) oldest known clothing artifacts in the archaeological record are sexy undergarments? No? Me neither. The book I’ve been reading lately is Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, and in it she traces the (pre)history of women’s development of fiber crafts from the Upper Paleolithic onward. There are many things that have jumped out at me thus far, such as the parallel development of floor and warp-weighted looms in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, respectively — a history that may sound decidedly uninteresting to some, but I find it interesting, and Barber’s telling of it definitely is. But one of my favorite stories so far is about a genre of garment that baffled archaeologists at first, and also apparently still baffles Homer scholars (which I discovered when I went searching for artistic renderings of Aphrodite’s “girdle”).
I thought I would share a short extract from the book here, from the section talking about the discovery, controversy and Barber’s analysis of so-called string skirts. Please don’t mind the page numbers — I included them in the transcription in case I want to go back and cite any of this in the future. (I got Women’s Work from the library so it has to go back someday.)
from Barber, E.W. Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years. New York/London: W.W. Norton & Co. 1994.[p. 54] Acquisitiveness is a Neolithic invention. String nets to catch a meal and carry it home for the family, plus wraps to keep warm and a few small tools and light containers to hold and prepare the food, for thousands of years were possessions enough. The heavier crafts like pottery awaited the advent of permanent houses to store things in.
Hence the first craft other than chipping stone blades and carving wooden implements (…) and the first important craft not dangerous to the children must have been the fashioning of objects of and with string and fibers. We have no direct record of who did what chores in that distant time, but we will not be far off in surmising that the women were already involved in this innocuous task while they tended their toddlers around camp.
It is also on a carving of a woman that we found our first clear evidence for fiber string. Let’s return to look at this woman again.
Her skirt is fashioned of cords suspended from a twisted hip band and hanging only in the rear. Almost all the Venus figures are completely naked, but a few others wear clothing. All these come from Ukraine and European Russia, which lie as far toward the eastern end of the Gravettian culture as Lespugue lies toward [p. 55] the western. A few of the Venuses from the site of Kostienki wear simple bands or sashes, but the Venus of Gagarino sports a string skirt: a shorter, tidier skirt than her French sister, and this time hanging only in the front, but covering just as little, which is to say, nothing at all of what modern Western culture demands that a woman keep covered.
A skirt so skimpy, made of loose strings, can’t have been very warm, and it certainly doesn’t answer to our notions of modesty. So what was it for? Why did people who owned so little go to all the trouble of making and wearing a garment that was so nonfunctional? And what’s more, why did women choose to wear such a thing for so many thousands of years? We have representations of women in little string skirts, here and there in this same broad geographical area through the next twenty thousand years, and even, around 1300 BC, some actual string skirts preserved or partially preserved for us in the archaeological record.[p. 56] During the Neolithic, as people settled down in one place to practice the new art of farming (making it much easier for us to locate where they lived), we find an increasing array of clay figurines of women in string skirts, from sites in central and eastern Europe — the old heartland of Gravettian culture. (…)
In Denmark and northern Germany, moreover, in addition to figurines, we have the remains of string skirts on the bodies of young women buried in log coffins during the Bronze Age, late in the second millennium BC. One of these skirts, made of woolen cords stained a rich brown by the acidic groundwater that preserved it, is complete; we can inspect its mode of manufacture.
The thick plied cords that form the skirt were anchored by being woven through a narrow belt band, from which they hung down [p. 57] to a length of about fifteen inches. At the bottom they have been caught together with a twined spacing cord, which serves to keep them in order. Below that, the ends have been looped into an ornamental row of knots, making the bottom edge so heavy that the skirt must have had quite a swing to it, like the long, beaded fringe on a flapper’s dance dress. The belt band on which all depends is so long that the skirt was worn wrapped around twice, rather low on the hips, and tied in the center front with the generous ends of the band. Other finds of less well-preserved string skirts show much the same design features, except that some were finished off at the bottom by encasing the ends of the cords in little metal sleeves. These, too, would have given the skirt a consider-[p. 58]able swish to it, by their weight, as well as caught the ear with the click and the eye with the gleam of metal.
European scholars were horrified, when the complete skirt was dug up at Egtved, that their ancestresses should have worn so indecent an apparel and proclaimed that the lady must have worn a linen shift underneath it, now disintegrated without a trace, to hide her nakedness. The figurines indicate otherwise. The Egtved girl at least wore a woolen blouse, but the spry young girls in the bronze images wear nothing at all but a string skirt of the same design, and a rather short one at that.[p. 59] In no case do the string skirts — whether Palaeolithic, Neolithic, or Bronze Age — provide for either warmth or modesty. In all cases they are worn by women. To solve the mystery of why they were maintained for so long, I think we must follow our eyes. Not only do the skirts hide nothing of importance, but if anything, they attract the eye precisely to the specifically female sexual areas by framing them, presenting them, or playing peekaboo with them. In all the Venus figures the breasts, belly, and pubic area are heavily emphasized; that is how the sculptures came to be called Venuses. Hands, feet, and head are often barely carved at all. (…)
Our best guess, then, is that string skirts indicated something about the childbearing ability or readiness of the woman, perhaps simply that she was of childbearing age, having reached menarche but not yet menopause, or perhaps that she had reached puberty but was not yet “married” (whatever that might have meant in the particular society: still a virgin, or still without child, or still without regular mate) — in other words, that she was in some sense “available” as a bride. The notion of marriage, as opposed to mere mating, is so important to the human race that the need to negotiate this problem has been seriously suggested as one of the most powerful drives toward the development of language. Indeed, [p. 60] clear signals as to the marriage status of women are common around the world, from the tiny gold band around the fourth finger to signs visible from far away, such as the squash blossom hairdo of the unmarried Hopi girl and the glittering coin-covered cap of the newlywed Mordvin wife. Depending upon the society, such a marker might carry with it a considerable sense of honor and specialness, certifying the wearer as possessing the mysterious ability to create new human life.
If this is the case, then we do well to look at the gently comical tale which Homer tells, in the fourteenth book of the Iliad, of how Hera set about to seduce Zeus.
Hoping to divert her all-powerful husband’s attention from the battlefield of Troy for a while, Hera goes to her divine apartments to dress herself in a way that her spouse will not ignore. She washes, puts on perfume, braids her hair, and dons a “divine garment” and golden jewelry. Then she carefully ties around herself, for this special occasion, her girdle fashioned with a hundred tassels.” Finally she goes to Aphrodite, goddess of sexual love, and asks sweetly if she might borrow Aphrodite’s girdle as well. In other words, to make very sure of her quarry, she asks to use the divine archetype of all such girdles, into which, Homer says, “have been crafted all the bewitchments — in it are Love and Lust and Flirtation — persuasion that has stolen away the mind of even the carefulest thinkers.” Aphrodite obligingly takes off her special girdle (she wears it constantly, it seems, as a badge of her office) and places it in the hands of the queen of the gods, instructing her to put it on under the fold of her breast. (This is the literal wording and describes exactly how the Venus of Gagarino wears hers. But the modern translators, not understanding the garment, usually tamper with the passage.) Aphrodite tells Hera that with this girdle on, “what you wish for in your mind with not go unaccomplished!”[p. 61] Nor does it. Zeus spots Hera coming toward him on the mountaintops, forgets everything else, and demands that she lie with him then and there.
What could this be, this “girdle of a hundred tassels,” but our string skirt? The form is right, in fact unique, and the signal that Zeus picks up — that it has to do with making love to a woman — is very close to what we have surmised. That the archetypical one is owned by Aphrodite falls closer still; in her hands we might almost call it a mating girdle.
The string skirt is still alive and well, preserved in many a folk costume in the old heartland of the Gravettian culture of twenty thousand years ago: south-central and eastern Europe. What’s more the symbolic function that we deduced from the ancient examples is preserved right along with the form.
Far to the east lie the Mordvins, just east of Moscow and west of the Volga River and Ural Mountains. They speak a Uralic language related to Finnish and the other northernmost languages on the European continent. Well into [the twentieth century] custom had it that a Mordvin girl would don a long black string apron at the time of her betrothal. Hanging only in the back, like that of the Venus of Lespugue but wider, it marked her as a wife. Its function, claims a Finnish woman who has researched the local costumes thoroughly, was that of “the symbol of a married woman,” and as such it “belonged to the same category as the woollen and often fringed loin drapings of the Southern Great Russians, the Bulgarians, the Serbs and the Rumanians.” Women wore very simple ones for every day, but quite elaborate ones for festive occasions.
I’ve started talking a bit with a seller on Etsy, which started because I bought some beautiful fabric from her that she estimated to be from the 1930s. I sent her a message asking how she figured out the age of fabric, because I was curious, and that started a whole back and forth conversation of the sort that is had between two people who love old things. And in case you’re wondering the same thing I was:
The two Worlds wars are quite big guides for 20th Century fabrics because each one marked the end of non essential textile production for the duration and styles and technology changed quite dramatically after each one. So there might be a little bit of overlap, a small factory picking up with the pre-war production afterwards.
The older fabrics are always narrower than modern copies and mostly you will find that the textile is much finer. The one you bought has a very dense weave, if you look the individual threads are very fine and the threadcount is very high.
This is the fabric I bought:
The woman who sold this to me lives in a village in France, not too far from where I live, and I’m starting to want to go visit because it sounds like a place that is packed with the ghosts of clothes-making past: “My 85 year old neighbour tells me that his grandfather used to weave sacks from hemp for a living. The bakery opposite my house used to be the place where they unwound cocoons from silk worms, washing the filaments in the clear mountain water before sending them to Lyon to be twisted and dyed into threads for the silk industry. There used to be a couture school in my village, so that although the area is rural with a historic peasant culture, early photographs of the village girls show them wearing incredibly stylish clothes that they have made themselves.”
I only discovered Etsy last month when it occurred to me that maybe I could find some interesting fabric there that I can’t get here. I was hesitant about buying something so tactile online, but I haven’t been disappointed, especially because there are loads of vintage fabrics and for that the pickings are particularly slim where I live. I did a search for sellers of vintage fabric in France — both to buy local(ish) and avoid import taxes at the border <– I’ve learned about the latter the hard way — and even with relatively narrow search criteria it was really, really hard to narrow down my shopping basket to my budget because there was so much to choose from. Everything’s arrived and so now I’m starting to get to work on what to make with my not-technically-new-but-new-to-me stash. With the above three meters of fabric I’m going to make a dress with a Colette pattern — it’s got a cut-away back, cap sleeves and a slightly flared skirt. (No longer listed on their website, but I’ve ordered it from my local sewing shop and it should be here any day now so I’ll post a photo of it then.)
I turned to Etsy for fabric (and to my local sewing shop, which I’ll write about in another post) because my stash was filled with a mish-mash of second-hand things I got at thrift stores in the name of recycling, but which I don’t really like all that much, in addition to a big heap of cheap cotton jersey that I got in Madrid when we were there visiting my in-laws over Christmas.
The story on that:
Madrid has an enormous variety of fabric stores, of course because it’s a big city but also because it was historically a center for textiles and clothes making. The area around Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor in particular is packed with fabric shops and haberdashers. While out on a family walk my mother-in-law led us down those streets so I could check it all out, but it was so intensely overwhelming that I couldn’t think about buying anything: picture the busiest farmer’s market you’ve ever seen, multiply it by 100 and replace vegetables with buttons and that is Madrid’s textiles and haberdasher neighborhood: big, loud shops with a long counter separating the public from the salespeople, walls of buttons and zippers and ribbons and more stocked behind the counter and shoppers pointing and shouting over the counters at the salespeople to move a bit to the left, now up, and yes those buttons, those! Since I didn’t have anything specific in mind, and it wasn’t really an environment for browsing, I admired the chaos and we continued on to go stuff ourselves with cotton candy at the Christmas market and buy my niece a fluorescent green mermaid wig and Santa hat, which she wore together for the entire rest of the day.
I had grand plans to get lots of stash fabric during our time there (because Madrid is way less expensive than where I live) but somehow never got around to it in the two weeks we were there. Finally, the day before we left, while everyone else was lying around in a holiday food and wine coma, I set off by myself to go fabric hunting. I wound up in the La Latina neighborhood based off of some online reviews of fabric shops there, but it was already late and things were closing soon and I didn’t have any clear idea in my mind of what I was looking for. And I also made the mistake of going to the biggest store on my list, and I can’t really deal with big stores because too much choice blinds my senses. So I wandered around this big store, not liking anything and feeling slightly stressed, when finally it occurred to me that what I really needed (and when I say needed, I mean wanted) was a bunch of jersey in solid colors. I suddenly had a vision in my head of churning out piles of basic t-shirts. I would fill out my wardrobe with startling speed and thus be able to start wearing all my brightly colored and patterned things that I had hitherto never really worn because I never buy or make basics. Hell yes, that was the answer. I would become a basic-making machine.
So I bought a grand mass of cheap cotton-ish jersey from origins unknown, and I now deeply regret that purchase. I’ve made one black tank top with some of the fabric from this haul, and I’ve worn it maybe five or six times and it’s already fading and pilling, despite the fact that I wash everything but my running clothes and my schlepping clothes on the delicates cycle. Contrast that to the blue shirt refashion I wrote about in my last post, which I have worn repeatedly over the course of more than a year and it shows no signs of age — and it had already been worn by someone before me! I have no idea of its age, but judging from the dressmaker’s tag on the inside of the original dress I would guess the 1970s or so.
My Etsy seller pen pal pointed out this difference in quality in not just fast fashion clothes today, but also fast fabric: “I know from my older neighbours that when they bought new clothes, or the fabric to make them, they chose the best quality they could afford and expected their clothes to last. A big contrast with lots of mass produced textiles now that don’t always survive the first wash.”
The price of a lot of the vintage fabric I’ve found on Etsy is well within what I can allow myself to pay for fabric, and I’ve also discovered several French fabric companies producing very nice organic textiles today (found them thanks to my local sewing shop) that are a little more expensive but that are still within budget for smaller things like t-shirts. (Because we’re also talking cotton and the like, not handwoven silk, so it stays manageable.)
The contrast between the flimsy jersey I bought in Madrid and my purchases since then is astounding. Meter for meter what I bought in Madrid is much cheaper by far, but much cheaper fabric makes clothing that falls apart and looks old after four wears. The black tank top I made from the cheap stuff is already teetering on the edge of becoming schlepwear, and it takes me way too much time to sew even a simple shirt for it to reach bumming around the house status after a handful of wears.
I know I’m not the only sewist who has gotten lost along the way and started getting into a mindset of mass production, because I’ve seen and heard similar stories and comments along these lines. It’s funny that we fall into this trap. I’m chalking it up partly to being over enthusiastic in newfound skills and creativity, but I think it’s also symptomatic of the world we live in: having a full closet and options options options is the current normal. That is most likely the big reason why I was pulled toward mass production, rather than seeing sewing as my Etsy friend’s eldery neighbors saw it, always buying the best I can afford so I can make things to last, rather than simply replicating the very industry I try so hard to shun.
An update on the red skirt:
That, folks, is a finished skirt, and I am extremely happy with it. I finished it on Monday but I haven’t worn it yet because yesterday was chilly so I got to pull out my Roses sweater, and today is a work from home day, which means sweatpants and a tea pot by my side. Tomorrow is going to be a scorcher again so that is when my new skirt will get its debut. But enough about weather, let’s talk zippers. (Apologies for the photos, which show the skirt as being three different colors. The photo above shows the true color. At least to my eyes.)
I thought it was going to be tedious hand sewing the zipper but it actually wasn’t tedious at all and came together more quickly than I had expected, about one episode of House of Cards. (That is how I timed my sewing this past week, but we’ve finished the entire season already so I’m going to have to find a new unit of measurement.) I am very happy with the job I did on this. Maybe it’s not perfect, but I’m less and less sure of how to measure perfection in sewing and knitting, and against what standard of “perfection” I measure the things I’m making. For me, this skirt is pretty near perfection. I like the fit, I like the color, I like that I just winged the whole thing and thus it is of my own design (although it’s not exactly breaking any new ground in design). I also like that I decided part way through to take a breather, go buy a better zipper, and be patient with it instead of just hacking my way through and calling it wearable.
On that note I also started refashioning a shirt that I had already refashioned from a dress last year. This was the original dress and the shirt I made out of it:
Those are some awkward photos but in my defense they were meant to be a little self-mocking. This was the first shirt I made, and I sent these photos to my mom, as one does when one is a woman in her mid thirties and has just done something she’s proud of. When Mom got my email she called to my dad in the other room, “Bob, come check out the dress Kate just got at a thrift shop!” and then only showed him the first photo, which she said made his face go slack with horror. (She’s funny like that, my mom.) Dad finally said, “But …Why?” and then she showed him the following two photos and he perked up and said he thought I was mighty clever. I thought I was mighty clever too at the time.
This was the first shirt I made. It was a rainy day and I was binge watching sewing videos on YouTube, trying to figure out what to do next with my new sewing machine because I was getting bored with pillow cases. I came across a video or a blog post, can’t remember what it was, which showed a tutorial for making the simplest shirt ever, basically two squares of fabric (something synthetic or jersey, just not anything stiff) cut to the width of your shoulders/hips. You sew up the sides and the top, leaving holes for your arms and head, and then flip the fabric around the holes inward and hem that as well as the bottom. And ta-da, you have a shirt.
Hungry as I was at the time to make something wearable, I whipped one of these up using a dress I’d gotten at a thrift shop for the express purpose of chopping up and creating something new. I really like the fabric — it’s dark blue with a tiny red and white flower motif, some sort of mystery synthetic, but it’s not hot like polyester and it has a nice flow and a slight sheen to it. I wore this shirt a lot, but as time went on and I started understanding garment construction a little better, I began seeing all sorts of little and not so little things that bugged me. For one, in my rush to create, I used dark green thread because I only had three spools of thread at the time and dark green was the best choice among them. I also did something pretty lazy with the hem, which is hard to explain without diagramming it for you, but trust me, it wasn’t good. You couldn’t see it from the outside, but I averted my eyes every time I put it on. (Just to be clear, it wasn’t stapled — I’d already moved beyond staples.) I had also, as my instructions had instructed, turned in the fabric around the neck and armholes and stitched that, instead of adding facing and understitching.
I mean, come on. No facing and understitching? Amateur. <—- Kidding! I was (and still am) a beginner so give me a damn break. But that doesn’t mean that I have to let my beginner’s moves relegate this shirt to the back of my closet. This past weekend I decided to do things up right, so I set to work ripping out the arm and neck hole seaming as well as the corner of the bottom hem that also needed a redo. I was not prepared for how long this would take. I had apparently used a very tight stitch gauge when I initially made this, and so ripping out everything took approximately four episodes of House of Cards. It was a thousand times more tedious than hand stitching the zipper in the skirt up top, probably because I had expected the stitches to come right out and so I was mentally unprepared for the work. But I got through it.
I’m not sure what the lesson is in all of this. I suppose it falls between “Jump first, learn to swim later,” and “Take the time to do it right the first time.” I’m not entirely comfortable with the latter because, although it’s true in some sense, it also would have killed my enthusiasm on that rainy day when I first made this shirt. When you’re starting to learn how to sew (or anything else), there’s something to be said for charging ahead with a project, just to give it a go, and to be okay with knowing that you will possibly/probably be ripping out seams a year later. I think it was necessary to just recklessly dive in when I was first starting out. These days I’m trying to take things more slowly and get them done right the first time, but that’s also because I have more sewing knowledge now (knowledge that I gained from doing, from making mistakes, from making bad mistakes that ruined some very pretty and irreplaceable fabric, and knowledge that came from asking for help).
The day after the deconstruction, I started reconstructing: I reshaped the boat neck and the sleeves so things would fit better, and then I cut the pieces for the facing, sewed them on, and ironed and pinned them down. Yesterday I picked up dark blue thread that is a near perfect color match, and some time this week — maybe I’ll start today — I’ll do the understitching. And then this will be finished and I will start wearing it again. And possibly take it apart a year or five years from now when I will have learned better ways of doing things.
It’s summer here in France, and has been for several weeks already. I haven’t managed to do much in the way of warm weather sewing, due to a combination of being buried in work, buried in school and caught off guard by a month and a half of dodging life curveballs. I made one tank top: that is the totality of the House of Kate’s Spring/Summer 2017 collection to date.
It has only been in the past year or so, since I’ve started sewing, that my wardrobe has started to become slightly more functional. Prior to starting my sewing adventures I had sworn off buying new clothes, not because I had too many (things are still pretty spartan in the old closet) but because the only shop-made clothes I could afford were of the sweatshop-made variety and I was not okay anymore with financially supporting that system. That’s not to say I stopped buying clothes period, just that I began instead buying the odd thing here and there in second hand shops. Over the years I’ve slowly accumulated some interesting pieces, but the issue with my thrifting is that I’m attracted mainly to bright colors and loud prints, and a functioning wardrobe (functioning for me) cannot be had with bright colors and loud prints only.
(Side note: not a value judgment against anyone else, this is just my thing. I recognize that not everyone is going to have the time or desire to scour thrift shops and pick up sewing. That’s just what I do. There are other ways to reduce one’s participation in the sweatshop system, starting with reducing our consumption of clothes to begin with and taking good care of the ones we have so they don’t wear out so quickly. Okay, side note over, moving on.)
Anyway, what do the sudden jump from winter to summer + my slowness to sew warm weather clothes + my non-cohesive wardrobe have in common? Together they are the reasons why I keep opening my closet and pulling out the exact same thing nearly every day.
Poor me! I was caught off guard by the heat, thinking that I still had another month to sew up some wardrobe liaisons, but I don’t, so I keep wearing the same three things because nearly every summer weight thing I own clashes. I said this to my friend Arlène the other day and she said I should just start wearing my multicolored flower prints all together and call it trend setting.
The other afternoon Arlène and I met up for a drink, and when it was already pushing 80 degrees at 10 a.m. that morning I decided enough was enough, I was going to quickly whip up a new skirt, because I had had it with my regular rotation. It wasn’t going to be anything fancy, just straight and cotton with an elastic waistband, but that last part is where I immediately ran into issues. I have never sewn anything with an elastic waistband before, but in my beginner sewist hubris I decided that I knew exactly how to sew a skirt with an elastic waistband and so I set about doing so. I measured my hips at their widest point, measured the length I wanted, and cut my fabric, a slightly stretchy red cotton blend. Then maybe because I was jamming too hard to the music mix I’d put on, I made the fatal error of forgetting how the laws of physics work (specifically elasticity).
I wanted the skirt to hit me at my natural waist, so I cut the elastic to fit it. Then I cut a wide belt (the elastic was pretty wide), because I had an image of a wide-belted, high waisted skirt that billowed out slightly at the hips. I was already complicating things on what should have been an uncomplicated skirt. I attached the belt part onto the skirt part, folding the top of the skirt part regularly into little pleats so that the width of it would match with that of the belt (which I was very proud of — I did an extremely neat job with those pleats), flipped the belt inwards in half and ironed it flat, and then went to go try it on before adding the elastic. And of course, I couldn’t fit it over my hips, because the belt was cut for the circumference of my waist, not my hips, and the fabric belt was not stretchy so it obviously was not going to stretch over my hips.
This led to some swearing, complicated by the rising temperatures in our 8th floor apartment and the fact that my sudden decision to complicate things was taking more time than I’d anticipated and I had other things to do plus a friend to go meet. So I decided to hell with the elastic, I would just do a zipper, but this was complicated because I had already basically sewn together the entire skirt apart from its closure device, and putting a zipper into a garment that’s already pretty much made is no easy task, for me at least. Like a mule I ploughed ahead anyway, and sure enough I did such a hack job of putting the zipper in that I stopped half way because things were just getting too embarrassing. Also, the only zipper I had on hand that I thought even sort of went with red was a yellow one, but when I was putting it in I couldn’t stop seeing Ronald McDonald. I finally gave up, laid the skirt down to rest, took a shower, put on one of the three outfits that I’ve been wearing lately and went to go meet Arlène.
I was frustrated for sure, but the thing is that apart from the elastic and zipper debacles I was really liking how the skirt was coming out, and I was feeling pretty proud of the fact that I could put something like that together with no pattern or instructions. Now I’m going to try to get to the point of all of this: I decided that I could wait a little while longer to wear this nice red skirt. The following day I went to my town’s sewing shop and bought a red zipper, and then took my time carefully unpicking the yellow zipper while watching the first episode of the new season of House of Cards. I’m debating on whether to hand sew the new zipper, given the difficulties that I had machine sewing the old one, and so I think I might go with hand sewing. It takes a lot longer in theory, but it’s a surer bet that I’ll get it done right and it’ll no doubt look a lot neater since I think I can sew it onto the inside fold without taking the rest of the skirt apart. I think that’ll work at least, we’ll see. At any rate, I have about a dozen more episodes of HoC left to go, and summer’s not going anywhere, so I have time.
The events of the past several months, and especially those of the past two weeks, have made me requestion the relevance and usefulness of my work. This despite the fact that I believe my work to be relevant and useful, but I also believe it to be part of a long game, and when it seems that the world is quickly becoming an uncontrollable bush fire it’s hard to focus on anything but the immediate emergency facing us.
I can’t remember if I’ve told this story here before, but I have a friend who used to be a volunteer firefighter in her mountain village. She told me this and I saw photos of her in uniform, but for the first couple of years we knew each other I never witnessed her in action. Then one day I was over at her house on a sunny morning in the summer. We were talking about life and work over multiple cups of strong black tea, when I saw a fire truck driving into the village on the road up the hill from her house. “They’re coming for you,” I joked, and just then an ear-splitting siren went off. I snapped my head in the direction of the siren, and when I turned back to her a second later she had already disappeared. In no more than 20 seconds after the siren went off she had rushed upstairs, changed into her gear, run back down, put her boots on and was out the door, without a word to anyone. She was back after a few hours, panting, her face a flushed reddish purple. There had been a fire in the village dump, caused by something that had been leaking fuel which ignited in the hot temperatures. It spread to the nearby woods, burning slowly but every so often exploding into shots of flames two stories high. They got everything under control. My friend was exhausted and dizzy and even after taking a long, cold shower she felt like throwing up or passing out or both. I left to go home so she could rest.
This is what I feel things in the world are like now, except that these bush fires are happening every single day and there is no respite in sight. Not saying that the world has ever been a summertime picnic by a shady creek, but these days it feels like it’s just way, way too much. How do you go on with your life when the fire alarm never shuts off? I’ve read several essays in just the past week talking about activism fatigue, how long we can keep up the opposition, how to practice “self-care” so our lives are not completely engulfed by horror, fear, anger, and anxiety. That’s not only unsustainable, but it will surely lead to complete burn-out and, worse, desensitization to each new outrageous action taken by the new US administration. We are already talking about this and it hasn’t even been two weeks.
My mother, who has always been and will always be one of the wise ones among us, has committed herself to carrying out one act of resistance per week, but it’s been working out to be more like one a day. She’s signed petitions, written letters, made donations to the ACLU, Planned Parenthood and Standing Rock among others. She’s also started knitting hats and scarves for Sylvia’s Place, an emergency shelter for LGBTQ youth in New York City. (If you’re on Ravelry, there’s some information on this center in the Charity Knitting group’s thread “2017 Currently Accepting Donations.”) She’s staying informed and doing what she can.
I’ve taken inspiration from my mother and have started doing the same. I wrote up a list of things I can practically do and am keeping a log every day of what I’ve done. It doesn’t feel like much, but it’s better than the alternative of doing nothing. It’s mostly small things, donations and letters, as well as some charity knitting which will at least help a handful of people stay warm (but to be honest it’s mostly just helping me to deal with stress). Trying to channel my outrage into useful action.
I will continue to focus on this, finding daily ways to blast my fire extinguisher instead of just watching things burn, and at the same time I will work to stay focused on my part of the long game. Because those two things together are what prompt me to get out of bed every morning instead of staying curled up in a fetal position under the covers, and those two things are second only to my family and friends in giving me a sense of purpose and confirming my belief that we are better than this.
I’ve been doing a lot of this lately:
Knitting and watching Democracy Now! And knitting while watching Rachel Maddow, The Daily Show, Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, and John Oliver, retreating into a little cocoon of worsted weight wool and lefty politics. I stayed up all night watching the election returns on November 8-9, which for me here in France meant staying awake until 9:30 a.m. on November 9 and then sleeping for most of the rest of the day while my mother-in-law, who was visiting that week, was busy cooking comfort foods in bulk. I woke up to a pot of chili and three big trays of croquetas in the fridge. Later on we were discussing the election and Alvaro started to say “Do you think that Franc–” and then stopped and we burst out laughing (the way you laugh when you’re utterly horrified) because he almost said Franco when he meant to say Trump. Brains go where they go for good reasons sometimes.
It was at 2 a.m. GMT +1 on November 9th (8 p.m. EST on November 8th) that I began knitting a hat for a friend’s November 10th birthday. Until then I’d been sitting in bed in the dark with my knees hugged to my chest watching a live stream of the election on my laptop, wearing headphones so I wouldn’t wake up Alvaro. I guess I needed something to occupy my twitching hands while I watched it all go down. I knit through the rest of the early hours of that day, through Trump’s acceptance speech, until I started making mistakes because my fingers were going numb along with the rest of me. When I woke up I started knitting again, and wound up finishing the hat in less than 24 hours. Then I immediately began working on another hat in the same pattern for another friend, and when I was done with that I knit a baby sweater — for no one in particular, but I know quite a few people who are having babies these days so I thought I’d make one in advance, since I generally have a hard time getting my act together to deliver new baby presents on time. Plus there was something comforting and hopeful about knitting something for a future human being. Welcome to the world, kiddo, sorry it’s doomed but at least you’ll be warm. Now I’m knitting a hat for Alvaro (see above photo) because I’d promised him one this winter, and it’s officially cold here now so I needed to get moving on it.
Along with all the horrifying stories told on the news and by comedians who these days make more sense than many, I’ve also been hearing things from people I know and care about. My mother’s friend went to see Wanda Sykes in Boston and watched Sykes get drowned out by audience booing when she called Trump a racist; said friend reportedly went home and straight to the liquor cabinet. A friend of mine who is a black woman told me that her cousin had recently moved to western Massachussetts, and a few days after the election people in his new town started receiving KKK recruitment flyers.
Meanwhile, I’m in France. Here we are also in the midst of election season and we are also in danger of electing a head of state in the image of Trump. Plenty of people here are saying it can’t happen in France, that France is not the U.S., but that is exactly what people in the U.S. said after Brexit. The town I live in is nestled snuggly in a right-leaning region of the country, a region that sees itself as kind of French, but mostly as an entity of its own, idealogically different from those suspicious metropoles that are home to dangerous leftists with dangerous leftist ideas. We went to our town’s Bastille Day celebration, which was held two days after a murderous nutcase plowed a truck through crowds of people at the Bastille Day celebrations in Nice. Our town’s right-wing mayor gave a very long speech on the threat that the “islamistes” pose to Frenchness. It didn’t seem like most people were really paying attention, as they were too busy tucking into their plates of sausage and fries, but there was some occasional shushing of the picnic chatter from the people who were listening to what the mayor had to say. When he finished talking the band played the Marseillaise, and the party went on.
To some people, those like the mayor and Marine Le Pen are dog whistle blowers; to others they are white noise. But either way, they are producing noise and it says: raise the barricades.
Meanwhile, I’m knitting. Through the noise and through my stress. I’ve also signed up as an online volunteer in a network created by some progressive friends of a friend in New York. They quickly assembled after Trump’s win in order to mobilize volunteer support for NGOs and community organizations which, instead of working to further human rights for all US citizens and residents, are now scrambling to protect the gains they’ve already made. I wish I could do more, but not being physically present in the US makes things difficult. I’m open to suggestions if anyone reading this has any.
Changing focus on the subject here a little today. I’ve started an art practice-based PhD program, officially as of last week, and this week I’ve been trying to be a little more deliberate in how I organize my work (meaning research work and wage work). I was so high coming off last week, then took the weekend off and woke up bright and early on Monday, ready to get to work. I both expected furiously productive hours spent producing things of great value, and also knew that it would not happen like that. Monday, yesterday, and the early part of this morning were spent largely on smashing my cranium in order to fit into the narrow entryway of a dense bit of reading that I feel is absolutely essential to me understanding everything. This was not really working.
This morning, when I realized it was not working, I got up and took a shower because that’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re stuck, and while showering I thought about something someone had mentioned in one of the session last week, about oblique strategies. (Stay with me.) You can read more about those here, but in short it’s a method for creative work that uses a card deck with random and sometimes mysterious phrases on them that are supposed to get you to think laterally. You shuffle the deck, pick a card, and have to do or think about what’s on the card. It sounds like a tech company workplace strategy, but it’s made specifically for people doing the things I do and so, whatever, I thought I’d give it a try because I found an online version.
I wrote a bunch of them on cards and cut the deck, which bestowed upon me the following words of wisdom: “the most important thing is the thing most easily forgotten.”
Deep. What does it all mean? For me the answer (I thought) came pretty quickly — storytelling. I got interested in the things I write about here because I was first interested in how people tell their life stories, what they emphasize, what they leave out, and why, and how they define their place in the world. That brought me to think about how we see career success, which got me thinking about skills that I had and did not have, and how those skills are deemed useful or not in the world I live in. I was thinking about this, but at the same time I was still thinking about storytelling, which led me to read Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Storyteller.” This was when I was doing my master’s, and that essay was hugely influential in how I constructed my way of doing research at the time (which I won’t go into now, but I’ll probably write about it another time).
Back to pondering the thing most easily forgotten. I got up and pulled out my research archive from when I did my master’s and started flipping through it. In a plastic sheath somewhere in the middle of the binder there was nothing but a single orange notecard on which I’d written a quote that is now something I recognize as one of those inspirational quotes people put in Pintrest images. It read:
“I have woven a parachute out of everything broken.” — William Stafford
I know why I wrote down that quote and why it wound up being included in my archive. I identified with it because I felt like that is something I had done (or started doing) in my master’s research. Maybe it’s a little corny, but I don’t really care. However, I realized that although I knew William Stafford was a poet, I had never actually read anything by him. So I did what we all do, read Wikipedia, and then looked for his poems online. I picked the first one that came up, which was “Accountability.” I liked it, and I heard obvious echos of my research interests in it, and so there you go. But then I started thinking about back when I was doing my master’s, what doing my research felt like then. I had been out of school for nearly a decade, those years spent working behind a computer doing not very interesting things, and then suddenly there I was becoming a student again, and an art student no less! Party time! I was working on the side of course, but only part time and with fairly little responsibility (my old boss would not be happy to read that) and therefore I could afford to devote most of my mental energy to my research. And how did it feel? It felt like … I’m only coming up with an image here so let me just describe a mental gif for you, of me leaping into somewhere with my fist raised and a da-da-daaaa! orchestral sound in the background and then immediately leaping from there to somewhere else (da-da-daaaa!). I was on a mission, a mission sent from God, as my Dad says, a line that he stole from the Blues Brothers movie. Only not from God, from the universe really, though I suppose some people’s conception of their higher power is the universe, or math. I had no fear. The degree wasn’t important to me per se, but the space to think was. Did that sound obnoxious? Apologies if it did, but it’s the truth. We had no grades, only qualitative evaulations, and it was a not-quite-independent study program that was encouraging and open to students doing their thing their way (so long as there were explanations to back it up).
And so I had fun. I read and did plenty of things that wound up having nothing to do with what I was doing, but that left me open to finding other things that opened up new ideas for me. What I definitely didn’t do was make the process a labor of pain.
Not to say that my research now is a labor of pain — just that I feel as though I’m struggling to push myself ahead like a donkey cart in the mud, and in that simile I’m not sure if I’m the donkey, the cart, or the person doing the pushing from behind.
Thinking about this, and then going back to “Accountability,” I thought about how I’d used “The Storyteller” as a lens through which to look at my research, to organize it. I’ve done the same with a Henry David Thoreau essay (“Walking”) in a little side research project on walking in my area. With both of those texts, I read them as though they contained a codified message telling me how to structure my research, how to create my methodology, what were possible missing elements that I needed to consider, etc. Or else I just took them literally and did what they said to do, or what they said not to do. That’s what I think I’m going to do with “Accountability,” examine it for suggestions at least for what to do with the rest of the time I’ve blocked out today to do my research.
Going back to my oblique strategies directive, I’ve realized that the most important thing that is most easily forgotten is to have fun when I’m doing my research. (By have fun I mean be excited about it and experiment, don’t feel like I need to slog all the time.) I think I do better work that way, and most of all I enjoy the time I spend working, which is the point.
I started knitting my first sweater back in March, a sweater pattern whose very name indicated that it would take three hours to make, and here we are approaching mid September and it’s still not done. I can’t blame this state of affairs on the pattern’s dishonesty; I’m a pretty slow knitter to begin with, so there’s that, but more importantly I stalled on the project when it came to sewing it together. I waited until a visit to my parents in June for the blocking and stitching, but that was really just procrastination because I already know how to block things, and I could have looked up sweater sewing tutorials online, though I did prefer the idea of asking my mom to show me. On that visit I managed to get the sides sewn up, but one attempt to attach the raglan sleeves failed miserably. Good job actually that I had decided to opt for a mom tutorial rather than YouTube, because as helpful as YouTube tutorials are, they cannot actually fix your project for you when you make a massive mistake.
Mom managed to undo the wrongs I had done, and luckily because it was just about sewing on the sleeves the mistake could be removed without permanent damage to the rest of the sweater. So she did that, and then I think we watched The Daily Show, and since then (late June) I haven’t managed to summon the courage to try again.
Live blog is closed, thanks for reading! I’ll be back soon with exciting updates on my other projects.
7:56 p.m. Finished!
6:51 p.m. I am back, plate of grapes and cheese at my side, sweater in my lap, about to continue the saga of weaving in ends + Richard’s battle with Hooli over intellectual property rights.
6:04 p.m. Alvaro asked if I wanted to accompany him to the grocery store, and I’ve decided that this would be a good idea because I’ve been at this for five hours now and need a break, plus I can pick out my snacks of preference for the home stretch.
5:45 p.m. Still weaving in ends. Now watching an episode of Silicon Valley to keep me company while I weave away.
5:14 p.m. Newsflash: weaving in ends is very tedious.
4:30 p.m. Sleeve #2 done.
Commence weaving in loose ends.
3:55 p.m. Issue resolved.
3:40 p.m. Never mind about the walk. I am starting to doubt my abilities to finish this before nightfall. Just realized in pinning the front side of the second sleeve that I misaligned the pinning on the back side so now nothing’s lining up. Not sure how I managed to do that. Shall commence unpinning now and will pull out the stitching on the back side of sleeve #2.
3:29 p.m. The second sleeve is finished down to the armpit seam. Moving a little bit slowly maybe, because it’s a beautiful day outside and I have a nice view of the mountains from my desk so I keep stopping to look out the window. I’ve decided to go for a walk after I finish seaming.
2:48 p.m. Finished the first sleeve!
2:11 p.m. I have reached the first armpit with no incident of note, and the seams line up. This calls for a lunch break.
1:35 p.m. Well, I made it up to my first pin:
I think I’ll take a break now to ponder the meaning of it all.
Last Sunday I went rock climbing for the first time. It was at an indoor climbing gym, a fact which did nothing to lower the terror level in my parents when I told them about it.
I have a tendency to get a little dizzy at certain heights, but I wouldn’t say that I have a full-on fear, and I was thus completely caught off guard by the near hysteria I felt when I turned around halfway up the wall and saw how far away the ground was, how far away Alvaro was, holding the other end of the rope that was keeping me from certain death. When I would look down to check on my footing and saw that he was looking the other way for a second to relieve the strain in his neck from looking up all the time, I would bug out and yell down to him to keep his eyes on me (please!), even though I knew logically that I was not going to fall because I was roped in with a secure knot, and he could feel the tension in the cord and knew without having to look up whether he needed to pull it tighter. Plus, there were five-year-olds climbing the same wall as me. Still, I felt like I was hanging in an empty void, and had to battle with my inner voices that told me I was going to fall. It took me the entire four-hour session to even start to trust that I was not going to fall, and if I did I would be suspended by a cord, and so therefore I could reach out for a hand hold without fear. Every time I got to the top of a route I couldn’t believe it, that the voices had been wrong. The adrenaline rush for me came from this.
I’ve been going on and on about this to whoever will listen, and all listeners have nodded a bit but at some point have teased me for taking a Sunday afternoon at a rock climbing gym as such a profound personal experience. I’m telling you, though, it was. And I give you full permission to mock me for thinking that sewing up these sleeves is starting to feel like the same sort of experience.
1:17 p.m. I’m going with the following video:
I like how she’s making a sweater with the same ugly yarn that I’m using for sweater #2.
So here we go.
1:06 p.m. This video is not at all helpful. I scanned through to the end and realized that it’s just diagramming how the pieces go together, which even to me seems pretty obvious. I need stitch instruction, not diagrams lady! Also, confirmed, I should have sewed the sleeves before the sides.
1:00 p.m. I’m only 2:57 through this video and already I’m pretty sure that I went about this the wrong way from the get go (ie, sewed up the sides first). GAHHHH!
12:49 p.m. I know that I will definitely not be watching the video tutorial whose blurb reads: “So you’ve just finished your knitted sweater — now what? Now comes the fun part: You get to do the finishing!” Or maybe that’s sarcastic, in which case I like the tutorial maker’s sense of humor, so I probably will watch the video.
In late November 2013, I decided to learn how to crochet because it was cold and blustery and getting dark at 5 p.m., and I was getting bored in the evenings. One night I thought, enough is enough, and began brainstorming ways to amuse myself that wouldn’t annoy the neighbors or my living companions. You might say, well, read a damn book, but I spend most of my days reading on screen or in print, and there comes a point in the day when your eyes start to cross and your brain reaches maximum capacity, and you just need to do something with your hands. I also wanted to find an activity that I could do around other people, so as not to be anti-social, and something that entailed learning a new skill. Crochet it was.
By spring 2014 I had already switched to knitting because knitting patterns are more abundant and because knitting takes up 1/3 of the yarn that crochet does, and I do have a craft budget after all.
Now, after nearly three years of making things with yarn, mostly knitting, I’ve found myself with loads of little odds and ends from finished projects — balls of yarn too small to make much of anything, but too big to chuck into my gardening bag to use for tomato ties. I’ve been hanging on to it all with the idea of someday making a big, crazy blanket with it. Friends, that day has arrived! And I’m back to crochet for it.
My chosen pattern is the humble granny square, which is one of the few crochet patterns I like the looks of. And my grandmother made granny squares so I’m considering this an hommage to her. (I’m realizing now that I talk a lot about the grandmas on this blog. For future reference, Kay = mom’s mom, chemist and conspiracy theorist, and Roses = dad’s mom, superstar athlete and binge reader of Harlequin romances.) Grandma Kay was a granny square making machine. She made big blankets, lap blankets, baby blankets, drink coasters, and dozens of doorstops made out of bricks covered in stitched-together granny squares that are now a thing in our family, scattered throughout the homes of her children and grandchildren.
This project isn’t exactly going to be breaking new ground in design, but that’s not the point. I’m excited about it, because in addition to serving as an excuse to procrastinate on the stitching together of two nearly finished sweaters, this blanket is a refresher course for everything I forgot how to do in crochet (pretty much everything). With seven different stitches to learn/re-learn, it’s a complete package.
I picked a starburst design that looks like the one Grandma Kay always used, the tutorial for which can be found here. Warning: this video tutorial moves extremely quickly. If you’re new or just getting back to this like me, you’ll probably have to pause and go back several times while working through your first few squares. That said, it’s a great tutorial with easy-to-understand instructions and clear shots of the stitches.
Nevertheless, despite following Miss simplydaisy of YouTube’s excellent instructions, my first square turned out like this because that’s how learning works:
My fault, my stitches were messy and I was off on the counting right from the start; as a result, when I finished the circle portion and moved on to the square, nothing lined up and I wound up having to squeeze several stitches into the same loop in order for it to finish up in a square shape. In the end, wonky as it is, it’s a quadrilateral, so close enough for jazz as they say.
Square number two came out better, still has a few little mistakes, but it’s an improvement:
The blue yarn in both squares is left over from a tobacco pouch I made for my friend Lucas, and the red is from a Steve Zissou hat that I made for Alvaro last winter. I hadn’t meant for it to be a Zissou hat, that’s just how it turned out. Alvaro loved it so I pretended it was on purpose.
In addition to the crochet re-skilling and the grandma hommage, reminiscing over scraps is the third reason why I’m into this project — it’ll be a record of all the things I’ve knitted for myself and the people I love. Sort of like the college graduation quilt my mother made me, a kaleidoscope of triangles cut from my old Little League and summer job uniforms, Beatles t-shirts, high school graduation robe, the red velvet dress I wore in the role of Mrs. Claus in my first grade Christmas play Wake Up Santa!, the rainbow bed sheets I had in elementary school, the t-shirt I got at my first ever stadium concert (Diana Ross, I was ten years old, and she called me up solo to dance with her on stage, and the only dance move I knew was the Roger Rabbit so that’s what I busted out, and Ms. Ross, bless her, was just like well, okay! and started doing the Roger Rabbit right along with me)… I love this quilt because it’s a record of my childhood, and also a symbol of intense motherly love because my mother had been secretly stashing away all of the above with the idea of one day learning how to quilt so that she could make me a t-shirt quilt when I graduated from college. Pause on that for a moment, and digest it, and consider the foresight it demanded. I think Mom’s t-shirt quilt far surpasses my granny squares in nostalgic poignancy (I cried when she gave it to me), but I’m using it as a reference for this record of the hats and scarves and gloves and little bags and socks and sweaters that I’ve squinted at, sworn at, hunched over, sweated over, and finally finished and worn proudly or offered as a present to the special people in my life.
So I had this weird dream the night before last, maybe not any weirder than my usual dreams, but this one in particular had some very strange imagery going on. I was at my parents’ house in their bathroom looking for a spare toothbrush (which happens, because I forget mine), and in walked my dad sporting his usual haircut (bald, shaven) with the addition of a single bean plant sprouting from the back of his head like an antenna. I tried to ignore it because I didn’t want to make him feel awkward, but finally I said, “Dad, you’ve got a bean plant sprouting from the back of your head.” He turned around. “Really? Where?” At that point Alvaro came in and also noticed the bean sprout, and together we managed to dislodge it, which was not gory as you might imagine. It just kind of came out.
That image has stayed with me and yesterday I tried drawing it, but my people drawing skills pretty much stopped at around the eighth grade. Then this evening I did what people do nowadays and started looking around for images to photoshop. I chose the following photo for my dad, because he’s heard from several people that he looks just like Patrick Stewart (“must be the hairline,” he says):
And then I started looking around for bean sprout photos, such as this one:
And then I came across this:
And with this I felt no need to go any further. FYI the article that went along with the photo explains:
People in Beijing have found new usage for bean sprouts, a healthy vegetable packed with plenty of vitamins and proteins. Dubbed #Sproutcore, people have started wearing bean sprouts in their hair. The trend is reportedly popular amongst people of all ages, ranging from young children, men, and, according to bloggers, grandmothers too.
This still left me with the question of: what does it all mean? Until just a few minutes ago I wasn’t sure, but then I got an email + photos from my dad showing the solar panels they just got installed on their roof (front and back). He’s been very keen on this initiative for several years and is excited that it’s finally happened. My dad is not a crunchy vegan earth father who spends his nights reading permaculture manuals. He’s retired military and Republican (economically, not socially, he’ll point out, and he’s very clear that he’s hell no not voting for Trump). But be careful of your stereotypes: he is also fuel efficient, adamant about buying eggs from the farm down the road because they leave their chickens to frolic in the fields, believes in climate change, and now solar panels. So maybe the bean sprout in the dream symbolizes the sprouting of green ideas? Or is that too easy an interpretation?