Hard Holidays

My mother died in September. She was quite young, and she was a good mother.

Grief is a strange emotional state. I don’t miss her, in that way that other people seem to. I don’t look at old photos and feel nostalgic. I don’t pick up the phone to call her. I didn’t cry at her funeral. I was confused for a long time, because I wasn’t sad.

Then I realized that I was, more accurately, so sad it had stopped being a recognizable state. Sad is sad, and happy is sad, and breathing is sad. Like every atmosphere, you get used to it. It becomes invisible. Some days seem okay now, and some are like being in the bottom of a well.

My mother adored Christmas. She loved to feed people, and she loved to buy them things. She wrapped beautiful presents. She bought a new artificial tree every year, even though the whole point of an artificial tree is that they last forever.

My husband mystified her. They were, perhaps, the most completely opposite people I’ve ever known. He was the only one who ever flustered her unerring ability to pick out the perfect gift. So, he didn’t get gifts. He got these:

Untitled

This year, I booked a vacation house with no internet connection and no cell phone reception, and I am going to skip everything.

 

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Clothes, the weather, and slow fashion

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My last fifteen years have involved four radically different climates.

I no longer own the winter clothes that came with me on the last big move. We had a terrible moth problem (insects adore Texas), and rather than mend sweaters that I didn’t have an actual use for, just to let them get re-nibbled, they got discarded. My down parka went to a friend. My rain coat lost its rain-proofness. I unraveled a pair of knitted tights to make a shawl, then I mostly stopped knitting. My “winter shoes” for the last two years have been a pair of canvas Keds. I own one pair of jeans.

None of those things have been problems, mind you. This week, though, just as we have it hanging over our heads that we might have to relocate again, the weather has gone from the 70s to the 40s, and I am really unprepared.

I refuse to panic shop for clothes. I’ll get by; it will be warm again in a few days. But, what if I leave here and go someplace where 40 degrees in December is, you know, a regular thing? Or, heaven forbid, considered to be warm? What would a slow-fashion winter wardrobe look like, when you have to violate the fundamental principle of slow fashion and buy everything, or at least enough things, all at once?

(Photo: Detail of my one remaining handknit sweater, in the most completely-ridiculous-for-this-climate unspun Icelandic wool.)

Some notes on the state of the knitting world, after a substantial absence.

Life changes.

Structures fall.

Bits rearrange.

And here we are.

I thought about archiving the (now ancient) content that already exists here, and I might still. I am definitely in the process of reformatting. Mostly right now I am laughing about how sweet and quaint that last post about politics seems, in the light of current events. (The governor of Texas is still awful.)

My life has been a wild and not-very-nice kind of upheaval for the last two years, but I want to talk about something else:

I took three, or maybe a bit more, years away from almost everything making-related on the internet, and the year or two before that was a taper-down. Coming back to it now is deeply illuminating. One of my frustrations at the time, which I’m just now really able to articulate, is that craft had become a site of conspicuous consumption of its own. I am talking about the days of sock-yarn mania, here. “Independent yarn” at the time meant wacky handpaints and shopping frenzy.

It wasn’t that the trendy yarn was inherently bad, or that the people who bought it were. While much of it wasn’t to my taste, some of it was really quite lovely. But the atmosphere was one of stress. My most-overheard conversations were “I have to have that, and it is constantly selling out, what am I going to do?” and/or “I have so much yarn that I am freaking out about it, but I’m still buying more.” That’s what capitalism programs us to do, and I fully acknowledge that breaking that mold is damned hard.

That kind of shopping culture wasn’t something I wanted to participate in, especially in a handcraft context, and, more importantly, that kind of conversation about crafting wasn’t something I wanted to participate in.

It also isn’t that other conversations weren’t happening. I’m overstating a case that was very real, but not as absolute as I am perhaps making it sound. It is true, though, that there were many fewer options. Once I left New England the kind of yarn I found worthwhile was both difficult to access and nonsensical to use in my climate. (My knitting for the last three years is summed up in three or four large wraps, perfect for keeping the air-conditioning off bare summer shoulders. Even worsted weight sweaters have no use here, and wool moths love handknits that don’t get worn.)

So I am looking around this brave new knitting world with wide-eyed amazement. Karen Templer, who I knew in ye VERY olde days as the proprietor of a book site I hung around on way too much, is running a website that everyone else has already heard about, called Fringe Association, where people are having the exact kind of conversation about knitting that I have always wished people would have. Namely: how do we honor the yarn, and the process, by thinking about the knitting we do and the projects we commit to? How do we make garments that will both physically and fashionably last a lifetime? This is positioning craft back where it belongs, as an opt-out for fast fashion, rather than a different kind of opt-in.

(Three related but random observations: 1) I’m deeply amused that Mason-Dixon Knitting and Brooklyn Tweed seem to have, between the two of them and with some overlap, agglomerated every interesting knitter I remember. 2) People knit a LOT more sweaters now. Gee, whiz, a lot more sweaters. 3) Also, they do not seem to post on Ravelry as much as they did when I left. Most of the Rav groups I used to hang in were completely dead.)

I am slightly less behind on the sewing world, as my attempts there were more recent and stalled out by some dramatic shifts in my personal life rather than choice. Even there, though, the last year or two has been, apparently, amazing.

It’s with a new enthusiasm, then, that I find myself rummaging back through my bins of yarn and needles and patterns.

What can we do in the face of political despair?

It’s voting day in the US.

My state is due to elect, in a landslide, a governor so personally and politically disgusting that I can’t imagine how even his own party likes him.

The country is expected to elect, in various landslides, many people who are somewhat similar.

The reason? People don’t think. Or, more precisely, people are made not to think by the various forces in their lives. Sloppy journalism. Sensationalist, inaccurate Facebook shares. The ill-formed opinions of others, spread like wildfire. Who can blame them, really? Thinking about big issues is hard, unsatisfying, unsettling work. Thinking is uncomfortable, and our educational system hardly prepares us to handle it.

More importantly, though, people are afraid. They are afraid that there isn’t enough to go around. Afraid that the world will fall apart, if we don’t hold it together with all our might. Afraid of “the enemy,” without realizing that the enemy is a straw man, not an enemy at all.

It’s easy to despair. Most of my friends will spend the next two weeks reading (and obsessively posting to Facebook) about all of the “horrible” candidates that have been elected to various positions. We will expend our energy wailing and gnashing our teeth, fighting ferociously with our own friends and family.

STOP.

Consider instead that the point is to better the world. Is delivering the perfect sarcastic rebuttal to Uncle Joe’s position on gun control worth  adding to the sum total of human unhappiness? I doubt it.

Don’t wallow in misery.

Do something instead. Think about your desired outcome for the world, and work toward that, even if only in your smallest personal actions.

Foster genuine kindness. Let people have a voice, even if you don’t like what they say. Align your own habits better with your values. Research and support ethical charitable organizations who can enact your values on a larger scale. Reconsider personal habits of consumption to make more room for others. Meditate on peace and love, and what those things really mean in this world. Be gentle with people who are so very afraid.

Letting It Go

There are fifty books in a pile in my floor.

These aren’t just any books–they’re the books that used to be my identity. My whole world. Every anxiety. Every dream.

In short, my teaching materials and my dissertation research.

I wrote, by the way, a great dissertation, about a culturally relevant topic that I still care deeply about. I finished graduate school promptly on time, with the requisite checkboxes checked. If I’d done it ten years earlier, I would have a successful academic career now. But I didn’t, and I don’t. Honestly, I have very few regrets.

It’s taken me a long time to let go of this huge physical presence, though. How much of my past can I excise, without it being too much? Can I get rid of this stuff, without fracturing myself in some incurable way?

Today, the answer was finally YES.

 

Textiles that Mattered

Interrupting my regularly scheduled non-photographic musings to bring you Antique Dolly’s long lost clothes:

Antique doll's original (?) clothes

Antique Dolly belonged to an elderly relative, distant enough that I’m not sure how old Dolly really is. My father’s oldest sister, who is considerably older, married an older man. Dolly belonged to either his mother or his grandmother.

I’m not sure if these clothes are her originals. I’m honestly not even sure if her china torso, arms, and feet are attached to her original body. The clothes are mostly made by machine, but the mismatched lace trims–surely scraps from other projects–suggest it was done at home. The pleats were sewn into the fabric before it was cut to shape. The clothes go off and on with a very simple drawstring, so I doubt that Dolly had many suits. Given that she was wearing pantaloons, two petticoats, and a skirt, but only one layer of blouse, I suspect that a jacket was lost at some point. Her jaunty red ribbons are so tattered and fragile that I can’t tell how many there even are.

Dolly herself now wears a replica suit in pink satin, sewed by the aunt who passed the doll along to me.

Doll clothes

For a long time I couldn’t find the original clothes, but today an old decorative box on top of a bookshelf caught my eye, and there they were.

If sewing interests you at all, click through to my Flickr feed for many more details.

Fabric

I’ve been compulsively reading this beautiful blog featuring Japanese folk textiles. Many of these items are mended on top of mending on top of mending–a legacy of rural poverty but also of a culture and an era that disliked waste. When you harvested, spun, wove, and died fibers yourself, fabric was a precious thing.

Economies around the world adopted mechanized spinning and weaving at different paces. In England middle- and upper-class women had completely outsourced making woven fabric by the mid-1830s (in pre-industrial England, weaving was usually sent to a skilled tradesman, but threads were spun at home.) Other European countries held on to skilled weaving a bit longer, especially in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. Asia is sadly outside of my historical purview, for now. There are various hand spinning and weaving (or knitting) cultures that still exist today, although a culture would need to be quite remote to subsist on 100% locally hand-produced fabric.

I don’t know if you’ve ever tried spinning, but it is not fast. A good hobby spinner with a wheel might turn out a few hundred yards of wool knitting yarn–which is much heavier than most weaving yarn–in a day. Wool is the easiest fiber to spin. Cotton spinning is considered too tedious and technical for most people who are spinning by choice. This article lays out some of the process of preparing and spinning linen fiber. Hemp and linen have the added bonus of being hard on your hands, at every stage. Knitting from a commercially prepared linen yarn leaves red gouges in my fingers; I can’t imagine spinning it. The spinning wheel is, by the way, a vast speed improvement over the older (but concurrently used, and still used by many indigenous fiber cultures) drop spindle.

And that’s one phase of fabric production. There’s a reason time is so commonly envisioned as a thread.

The fact that modern women in industrialized societies can live their entire lives without doing any part of fabric or clothing production is literally stunning when you put it in a historical context. We’ve picked it up as a hobby, of course, but for our entire clothed history, minus the last two hundred years, making and processing fabric was the primary job of almost every woman in clothes-wearing cultures.

Not only do we not make clothes, we don’t maintain them once we have them. Darning, patching, and mending are skills that are even rarer than spinning, knitting, and weaving. Many modern fabrics aren’t even really capable of being mended, and are in fact designed to be worn for only a short time. I’m looking at you, Lycra that looses its stretch after a year.

I’m not in a hurry to make all of my own clothes, don’t get me wrong. This is just food for thought in our culture that throws away prodigious quantities of textiles every year. If that shirt represented a month of your life, instead of $15, would you do something besides put it in the trash bin? Would you have bought it in the first place?