Monday, April 27, 2009

2009 is the International Year of Natural Fibres

Never Fly in Nylon

We are often asked by various groups to give talks about weaving and spinning through time or some other fiber-related subject. Whether one of us is talking about the history of knitting, teaching a class on needle-felting, or sitting in a museum doing a demonstration, we always find a spot in the proceedings to talk about the value and benefits of natural fibers. Here are some of them, focusing on wool:


  • Wool does not burn. If you drop an open flame on wool the fabric will smoulder. It will really stink, but when you blow the flame out the charring stops. Many fire departments require cotton and wool clothing to be worn by their people. This is particularly important to remember when you are flying. Every airline that I know of uses wool and wool only for their carpets and seat fabrics. You will be much safer if you dress in natural fabrics, whether it is wool and leather or linen and cotton. Most synthetics either burst into flame or melt when exposed to fire. Whatever else you do, gals, never wear nylons on a plane.
  • Wool stays warm when wet. Those Irish fishermen on the North Sea do not wear Aran sweaters because it gives them a "rugged yet traditional" look. They wear them because wool is the only fabric that stays warm even when wet. Wool will hold up to 31% of its own weight in water before feeling damp. Cotton, by contrast, only holds 15% of its own weight before feeling wet.
  • Wool is hypoallergenic. Despite the reputation of being "itchy" (which is actually caused by the harsh treatment fleeces receive in some processing plants), wool is a boon to those with chemical sensitivities. It also resists bacteria, mold, and mildew, and it repels dust mites. Some allergic reactions to wool are actually caused by the aniline dyes, so if you have this sensitivity, try to get wool that has been dyed with natural substances or wool in its natural colors.
  • There is no chemical out-gassing with wool. If the wool dyed with natural dyes there will be no added petroleum-based chemicals to irritate those who are made ill by them.
  • Wool helps with temperature control. When used in bedding, wool wicks away the nearly one pint of sweat the average human produces during sleep. The Bedouin know this. Their wool tents are actually cooler in the summer than the canvas tents brought into the desert by other cultures. Personally, I wear wool socks all year round. They keep my feet warm in the winter and by wicking away sweat they keep my feet dry and cool in the summer.
  • Wool is easy to clean. Because of the scales that comprise the outer coating of wool fibers, dirt doesn't penetrate wool, making it easy to brush off. This same structure allows wool to resist stains as well.
  • Wool is resilient and resists wrinkles. Wool can be bent back on itself 20,000 times before the fibers begin to break. By contrast, cotton breaks at around 3,200 bends and rayon at only 75.
  • Wool dyes permanently. Again, because of its structure, wool accepts dye down into the shaft of the fiber and the color does not wash out. However, no red dye I have ever seen is completely permanent on any fabric or anything else.

In the interests of full disclosure, however, I must admit that wool has a few drawbacks.

  • Moths are attracted to the fabric. However, with proper care, moths will not be a problem. There are wool fabrics in museums that have been preserved for thousands of years. Store wool with cedar balls and/or lavender sachets and your wool garments or blankets will be fine.
  • Bleach destroys wool. A little bleach will remove most dyes. A lot of bleach will destroy the fibers.
  • Unless marked "superwash," wool will shrink in a dryer. This might be a good thing if you are intentionally "felting" or "fulling" a fabric item. It definitely is not a good thing when your spouse puts your favorite cashmere sweater in the dryer. Unless, of course you have a child that likes to play with dolls!
  • Strong alkalies will destroy wool over time. Be very careful with what you use to wash wool. I also recommend not using laundry aids that contain enzymes. The enzymes are designed to remove protein or oil-based stains. Wool is a protein fiber.
  • Excessive heat will harm wool. Always use steam when ironing.

Over-all, for me at least, I prefer to use natural fibers. When I am weaving I use a wool warp and weft because I love the feel of the wool, its looks, and its ability to withstand time. Give the natural fibers a try (beyond your favorite cotton t-shirt). You will not only be helping yourself by being more comfortable, you will be helping the people who grow, process, and create fabric from these ancient choices. Whether it is silk, wool, cashmere or the more humble cotton or hemp, in this International Year of Natural Fibres, it is time to step back and choose a more natural, recyclable, and renewable way to use fabric. You won't just feel good because you are making ecologically sound choices - you will feel good with the way you look, and the comfort these fabrics provide.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Sheep May Safely Graze*


On this Earth Day, while we are remembering the wild places and those who dwell in them, please spare a moment to think about domestic livestock. In our “hurry-up” world we have begun to reduce the types of, for example, turkeys so severely that a single genetic disorder would wipe out Thanksgiving.

And yet, there are several breeds of turkeys, the Bourbon Red, the Royal Palm, and the Narrangansett and more, who are not closely related to the familiar Broad-Breasted White, which could add much needed genetic diversity – assuming the breed is still around when it is needed.

But, you say, I live in town. I can’t breed turkeys! No, that’s true – but you can buy them for dinner. In nearly every state there are small farms which breed many heritage breeds of cattle, sheep, turkeys, chickens, and others. Many of theses farmers are involved in Community Supported Agriculture and other programs to get these animals onto the public’s dinner table. Strangely enough, eating these guys is actually saving their breeds.

There are rare breeds of horses, donkeys, and goats as well, all of which have many excellent attributes now lost among more "popular" breeds.

The American Livestock Breed Conservancy needs and deserves your support on this and every other day. I don’t plan to shill for every charity that comes down the pike, but this one preserves more than just animals. By their existence they are helping American history itself to survive.

"...when the last individual of a race of living things breathes no more, another Heaven and another Earth must pass before such a one can be again." - William Beebe
* Johann Sebastian Bach: Schafe konnen sicher weiden aria 5 from Was mir beghat, ist nur die muntre Jagd, 1713)

Monday, April 20, 2009

Arts or Crafts or both?

"Traditionally, the term art was used to refer to any skill or mastery. This conception changed during the Romantic period, when art came to be seen as 'a special faculty of the human mind to be classified with religion and science'. Generally, art is made with the intention of stimulating thoughts and emotions." - Wikipedia, Definition of Art


The Romantic Period is usually thought of as the period from 1815 to 1910. Another name for this time span is "The Industrial Revolution." In fact, the Romantics opposed the Industrial Revolution, which created the very wealth and leisure time which allowed them to lie around, smoke dope, dabble in poetry, and define art as ethereal and purely useless except for its intrinsic beauty.

This is the period of the great collections that eventually filled the museums of the world with gorgeous pieces of culture (for the most part stolen, figuratively or literally). This is also the period in which the "history of art," was defined.

Today "Fine Art" is basically comprised of stuff with no intrinsic use, created for rich people and wannabees to collect (thus Thomas Kinkade). Sometimes-vast amounts of money are spent on Fine Art created by The Masters. Vincent van Gogh could have gotten the help he needed to avoid cutting off his ear for the price of half of one of his pieces today. El Greco could have had his vision fixed. Did Michelangelo make a living from the patronage provided by the Medici's or a couple of Popes? It depends on what you call a "living." If he knew how much his paintings and sculptures are worth now, he would probably be spinning in his grave fast enough to generate electricity.

"Art" and "artist" must, like everything else, be defined in terms of self and other. These days, many define "fine artists" as only sculptors and painters. All other artists are therefore, by default, artisans or craftspeople -- anything but true artists. By this definition:

  • Cellini, whose works in gold are no less gorgeous than a painting by Raphael, is relegated to the back seat as a "mere" artisan*.

  • The Unicorn Tapestries have become mere "folk art."

  • The Taj Mahal is "just" a really nice example of the mechanics of architecture.
Sarah Natani, my Navajo weaving teacher, raises her own sheep, sheers them herself with the help of her older sister, cards and spins the wool and dyes it with natural plant dyes (also hand-gathered). Only then does she weave gorgeous pieces from a traditional perspective. How is this any less art than Leonardo?

It is my contention that it is not. Sarah Natani's blankets and rugs are every bit as much art as are the works of Leonardo, El Greco, Michelangelo or any other of The Masters. In fact, the quantity or collectability of any creation should not be considered as a part of the definition of "art." Wood carving, goldsmithing, ironworks, architecture -- and yes, my particular bailiwick, fiber art -- should all be considered as fine as any other art.

Many artists of all types complain about making a viable income from their art. One caveat I might make is that few artists who were popular in their own time wind up in museums. On the other hand, our shop has had to convert from a yarn shop with some weavers to a weaving shop with some yarn, due to demand for our finished goods. Our works do not come cheaply. The plainest, single thickness saddle blanket that I make sells for $299. Patricia's shawls range between $200-$600. Does this provide a living? Yes. We are not extravagant people, so we are not making a killing. I would rather make a living than a killing, anyway. Our marketing strategy could best be distilled to: confidence and patience. We believe that wider acclaim will come with time and have no problem demanding and getting the prices we ask.

We are both studying Rio Grande weaving at Northern New Mexico College. We read everything we can get our hands on and have taken many classes with those who are considered maestras of these techniques. There is plenty of opportunity for learning, whether at the guild level or at the level of internationally known teachers.

One can address a further distinction: Are production crafts (which make multiple copies of the same thing) and one of a kind (OOAK) creations both worthy of the distinction "art?" This is mostly, I suppose, a matter personal taste. I rather tend to think that OOAK pieces are art and the other is not (after all, my pieces are all OOAK); but Bauhaus weaver Annie Albers would disagree with me. However, this may be a discussion for another day.

My concern about "the arts" is less about what is or isn't art and more about the discrepancy between what is paid for "women's arts" and "men's arts." That is one of the reasons that the local guild is called the Southern Plains Fiber Arts. We uphold the idea that the fiber arts are that: art. Both the guild and our shop do many, many demonstrations at schools, heritage events and fairs, as well as at museums. We also reach out to younger people who might not find these art forms otherwise. We get a great response.

To me, raised as I was on the particular utilitarian beauty that is known as the American Arts and Crafts movement, I cannot help but agree with the main proponent of the parallel English ideal:

"Have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful and believe to be beautiful." - William Morris, (1837-1896)


* Photo is Cellini's "Saliere," a particularly fabulous salt cellar. - Wikipedia, Cellini.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Mitochondrial Eve

One of the projects I want to start this year is my series on "Mitochondrial Eve" who was our most recent common female ancestor (MRCFA) some 200,000 years ago, before we left Africa. A very dear friend of mine once said that he admired my ability to think in decades not just days, but it took a lot of thought to wrap my mind around this concept.

Of course, she is not the Biblical Eve (whom I believe to be an entirely metaphorical construct), she is just our MRCFA. Nonetheless, she is the mother of us all, by whom we are all connected - our universal ancestress whether we are Gandhi or Hitler, Obama or Bush, or just some woman in the midwest writing a blog about a weaving project.

This idea intrigued me from the moment I first heard of it. Partly, that's because I have a special fondness for Mitochondria, the little "workhorse" of the cell, a tiny symbiote who took refuge with us almost at the beginning of life and which converts fuel into electricity. We couldn't exist without our little interlopers and they couldn't exist without us. Mitochondria are passed from mother to child, and through mitochondrial DNA, we can trace our female ancestry back to the beginning of humanity and beyond.

Mitochondrial Eve is the hourglass of our past, a metaphor I picked up from the website listed below. She was not the only Eve. She was just the one that survived a constriction in the tree of humanity, be it a climatic crisis or a plague. Her offspring spread humanity into a new tree. There were doubtless other Eves before her, and there may well be others in the future; but for now she is our mother.

I like to think about her and what she might have looked like. I think of her as a slender young woman with a baby on her hip, standing and looking out beyond the lands she knew into the future. She wasn't anyone special in her time. She could never have imagined that 200,000 years later one of her distant daughters would be writing about her during a spring rain, thousands of miles away.

When I imagine what she looked like I can never quite see her face. In my weaving project I plan to use the representational graph to depict her. The backgrounds will change but the graph never will.

To me she is intimately connected with the earth, and I like to think that she would be pleased that many of us are struggling to save her home, her legacy to us all. She is a constant that I cling to, this spectacularly ordinary woman who became the mother of the human race. That makes all of us kin, all of us brothers and sisters, mothers and daughters, sons and fathers, all of us one family full of quirky uncles and cranky aunts, cousins of questionable character, and grandmothers who bake cookies best of all.

[For a fuller explanation of the Mitochondrial Eve concept, see this web-site: http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/alabaster/A703199]