A photoshoot, a following, an unfair expulsion and a good politician

I love being in the driver’s seat. To eat a meal, to admire the view, to take us to the next place, or to write. (It’s amazing how one can slip quietly but extremely uncomfortably into the passivity of the passenger seat. iNunca más! Not that there’s a passenger seat in my van – Murphy lives there instead.)

Many of you will have seen the beautiful Etsy piece that Julie Schneider wrote about me and which Alice Carfrae illustrated. Here’s the backstory (especially for makers and wanderers who could benefit themselves).

I pitched to Etsy about my ‘Inspiring Workspace’ (the name of their series of features on makers’ studios around the world). A key theme was the interplay between craft and place. Julie picked it up, offering the highest praise. She then interviewed me by phone from New York, quietly listening long and inviting me to go on and on spinning the yarns beyond our allocated time, with only the lightest prompts from her. She’d invited me to make a photographer recommendation, and by chance, pro colleague Alice, whom I hadn’t seen for years, was due to be back here from Asia for a few months. I asked Alice for some dawn and dusk shots, as well as daytime ones, and we became aware that photographing the van interior, and, especially, seeking to capture the interior and the spirit of the location in the same shots, would be a huge challenge (not to mention the vain weaver at work who needed flattering lighting and lengthy post-production to minimise the rings under her eyes). Alice kindly suggested staying with me overnight to get some night-time shots as well. Etsy paid for part of Alice’s time, and I paid for some more with weavings.

For reasons that I can’t broadcast, I seldom carry passengers. Nor has anyone else stayed in the van with me: it is a space designed for one woman, one loom and one large dog. (Although I will soon have two accordions. What on earth would I have done had I been a cellist? Obviously the piano had to find another home, though I did wonder.) It’s the biggest possible vehicle I can get up the smallest possible lanes. It’s for working and sleeping in, not socialising.

I collected Alice midmorning and after briefly exchanging ideas about the most beautiful spots on Dartmoor (of which there are millions) we nattered as I drove: daily life, environmental, social and gender politics in Delhi, Beijing, the Hebrides, England; loves past and present; old friends and workplaces in common. My van’s not easy to drive on these tiny, crowded roads, but with the professional challenge ahead we talked contracts and vignettes too as branches tore at our sides (Alice airbrushed out the dents afterwards).

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These Isles workshop on the move, by Alice Carfrae ©

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Among the Dartmoor tors, by Alice Carfrae©

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Another photobomb, by Alice Carfrae©

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Dartmoor ponies, by Alice Carfrae©

Choosing a photographic location was almost as tricky as choosing a night-pitch alone – every detail matters! We found a spot, but the bracken was too tall. We found another spot, but there were people there, and another, ditto. We found another spot, but the road was in shot. We found another spot with grass in front and a panorama of tors if we faced west as desired – though we would need to relocate for the sunset.

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Finding the right spot (for a few hours, at any rate), by Alice Carfrae©

We began photographing, though the overcast light that Alice would normally find perfect left us with insufficient light inside the van. She got some good outdoor shots, though I twitched when someone zoomed by leaning on their horn shouting an abusive ‘Pikey!’. (C’est comme ça at times; you have to be brave.)

In the sunset spot there was someone else overnighting, so we had to be really clever about photographing from angles that didn’t show his van – it’s just not as romantic, being parked up with neighbours, is it? (My natural instinct is to find the most remote spots, though sometimes I welcome the security.) We barely got a sunset, as, despite the forecast for Dartmoor’s typical changeability, the (even more typical) damp grey settled in. Hard as we tried, we were not quite ready for the three thirty second breaks of amazing light we got – although we snatched a few shots nonetheless.

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I call this ‘Irish light’, after first noticing it with my mum in County Cork as a child.               By Alice Carfrae©

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The light, by Alice Carfrae©

We worked until 10pm, when I cooked supper, and heroic Alice also went outside after that hoping to shoot the warmth of the 12V battery-powered interior lights of the van starlit against a turquoise sky. But the damp grey at night offered only a velvet black in too stark a contrast with our indoor lighting, so that shot was not to be.

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Darning the cloth. Photo by Alice Carfrae ©

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Darning skipped picks (stitches). Photo by Alice Carfrae ©

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Cooking in my fully-equipped kitchen, by Alice Carfrae©

Dear Alice slept (fitfully) on a mattress on the floor, and, exhausted and overstimulated, I didn’t sleep much better either – though it was nice to be in a beautiful spot with a friend.

Not an early riser, I nonetheless awoke early as usual, and at 6am the first hint of sunlight was showing over the hill, so I reluctantly roused Alice, who was straight outside again with her camera within seconds.

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We’d done three hours’ work before breakfast, getting some of our best shots in the soft, sweet morning light (though it certainly took a while for my face to wake up).

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The view from the workbench, Alice Carfrae©

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Yarns in the morning, Alice Carfrae©

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Tools in the morning, Alice Carfrae©

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Heather in the gorse, Alice Carfrae©

Murphy was ever-patient, as his walking routine was neglected – but he enjoys being out and about in different places meeting people.

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Finally the light was on our side and the camera rolled until after lunch, when, with almost all of Etsy’s shotlist covered and with some spontaneous shots besides, we finally packed it in, packed up and got back behind the wheel, seeking out an ice-cream reward on the way back to Alice’s house.

After much backing and forthing between Julie and I and Alice and I and Alice and Jen, the photographic manager for Etsy on this assignment, the article was published. I knew I needed to be prepared to make the most of the exposure, but I was completely unprepared for the overwhelming wonder of people’s enchantment: I certainly had not allowed time to spend most of the subsequent fortnight responding to people’s incredibly affirmative comments where they shared deep feelings and snippets of lovely stories, though it’s important to. It’s been amazing: I can’t thank you all enough.

My stats (views, favourites, likes, subscribers) spiked tenfold in some cases, and in a week my turnover exceded that of my best month yet in this two-year-old business. Phew. A lot of hard work, but it’s going places. (Obviously I’ve had to cut my living costs right down in this travelling life.)

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Even more special are the amazing contacts made as I catch a glimpse of your lives – in vans and RVs, on boats and crofts – and your projects that are visions of mine too – growing vegetables and dye plants; raising sheep and awareness; musicmaking, wordsmithing, spinning, weaving, knitting, dyeing, travelling, dreaming, remembering, wishing, working, working, working for change. I’m really glad to know you’re out there, and hope our paths will cross in the flesh sometime (I’d love to build an itinerary of parking-up spots, and though I can’t imagine bringing this old van to the US, the Americas are seemingly calling me, so maybe one year…) The number of you who have expressed thanks for my inspiration is the most heartening bit. A somewhat desperate bid for survival, I nonetheless felt selfish deserting the worthy cause of teaching in mainstream education, but if I can still inspire, then I’m still contributing.

Says Gayathri from India: ‘I just pinged to say that I loved the article … it’s by far the best post I’ve read on Etsy! I have never sent a convo to anyone other than my buyers. It was such a beautiful article and I couldn’t just sit here without appreciating you. It would be an understatement if I say that your wonderful journey gives me so much hope and happiness. Thanks a bunch for making me smile 🙂 keep living that beautiful life for all of us! Lots of love from across the oceans’

Says Nicole from Quebec : ‘Eloise, you are an inspiration. I think I could do this with my soapmaking! I would like to bring my horses along….. Thanks for sharing.’

Says Emm from Wales: ‘Your story and life style is inspiring. My dream but I am a lone parent of four. Feeling a bit trapped but you give hope for a one day change.’

Says Frances from North Carolina: ‘My daughter and I are just now starting to clean out our house and get it ready to sell. Sitting in the yard is a new 5th wheel camper and a truck. We are are embarking on a similar journey and I have been wondering if I should close our business or try to take it with us. After reading your story and seeing that it is possible, I feel so much happier now, knowing it can be done. Thank-you so much for sharing. You made my day! Keep on going. Live the life you love.’

Says Jenn from New Hampshire: ‘Love this feature! You are an inspiration and a fabulous weaver. I have often thought of doing what you are doing, but here in the US. Maybe we should start a small traveling colony of Etsy sellers:o) Wouldn’t that be grand!’

Says Lisa from the Treehouse: ‘This has moved me. On many levels. Thank you for sharing your spirit and work and words. You may have just started a movement.’

And this is just a few of the few hundred.

I haven’t started a movement, but there IS a movement. A ‘normal’ way of life is failing ever more people who, squeezed and wrought, must, like me, think outside the box in order to make do. Wellbeing is not a luxury: everything goes wrong without it.

(By the way, if you have questions about the small-but-dealbreaking pragmatics of a lifestyle like mine as you work out an alternative way forward for your own life, then please do post them in the comments below. I generally prefer holding this kind of discussion in the public domain so that more people can benefit by reading and/or joining in – plus then I don’t have to type the same things loads of times; I’ve done little weaving this month!)

Me, me, me. I’m extremely lucky – and pretty damn resourceful. Brought up with no money, no property, with state benefits and state education, I nonetheless had art, craft, culture, animals, wilderness, business and critical thinking capital (not to mention kind and talented friends and family). England voted to leave the EU, but I have dual citizenship and the right to a European passport, so I’m just fine. So many are so much less well off. And here I have to get back onto the soapbox, and cannot keep it out of my ‘weaving’ blog, because I think in systems, and the whole lot is connected, and there has been more drama that I want you to know about.

Fearing an even more unjust Tory-shaped independent Britain, I put my support behind democratic socialist Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn (who, incidentally, happens to have been a prominent figure in a textiles union decades ago). Labourlist says ‘Corbyn’s status as frontrunner in the leadership election is secured today as a new poll finds he is on course for a 24-point victory’, but he is being attacked ever more viciously (as this satirist hilariously sums up – NB expletive torrent). Since I think he is a rare source of hope, I want to be among the voices speaking up for him, so I offer you my reasoning (forgive me some repetition of previous writings):

I don’t think that socialism holds all the answers, and, understandably, a socialist is having grave difficulty holding together a party that is half constituted of neoliberals, but he is the only person anywhere near the premiership whom I trust to recognise what are NOT the answers (inequality; austerity; neoliberalism; authoritarianism; war) and resist the kind of constant compromise that leaves a Labour government looking so very similar to a Conservative one. Corbyn, McDonnell and their young team are intelligent, sensitive, passionate, steadfast and dynamic. I think their minds are open to new solutions: I’m wondering whether inequality could be addressed by state control (as opposed to global, corporate bank control) of our monetary supply creating a non-debt-based economy. It seems to me that money creation as debt is basically the modern feudalism, whilst fairer distribution of currency would mean fairer access to markets so that they worked for the many – markets which kept well away from services (currency, health, education, welfare, infrastructure) that are at risk from distortion by commodification. Obviously this plays havoc with the international financial markets, and I’ve no idea how a transition could be made, let alone smoothed, but I do think that making survival a bit less hard for the masses would free us up to better look after each other and the environment. (And if overpopulation is a concern: we breed more under stress, don’t we?) Corbyn’s the only one who could do this, I think.

I think the UK Green Party offers some such answers, but they are so far off being elected that I joined the Labour Party instead. Ideally I’d like to see the parties of the left join together. Goes the old adage: ‘the reds ain’t green enough, and the greens ain’t red enough’. And the yellows (the Liberal Democrats) are committed to electoral reform so that we actually get democracy, probably in the form of Proportional Representation. In post-referendum hysteria during a week of intense passion nationwide, fearful news stories, keen motivation and seeking to support the emergence of a Progressive Alliance, I also briefly joined the Lib Dems. I shout my politics from the treetops: my personal Facebooking is largely campaign activity. Intelligence agents for the centrist neoliberals of the Labour Party who have been trying to unseat soft-but-firm-left Corbyn by purging the party of newly joined ‘Corbynistas’ have seen my hundred pro-Corbyn posts and they’ve also unearthed a pro-green-and-yellow remark of mine, and expelled me from the Labour Party, ostensibly for the latter reason. I am distressed to be disempowered by being denied a vote in the upcoming leadership election to renew Corbyn’s mandate, but on the other hand I am furiously empowered. I’ve replied to Labour’s secretary general, who seems to have been blocking democracy at every step as hundreds of thousands of us subscribed on the explicit understanding that we could vote, then had to pay an extra £25 for the privilege as the goalposts were moved to exclude us, then paid again, then had to be screened all over again, then went to court, then won the ruling, then lost the appeal, then got expelled as well. (And when a whole lot of people get blown up by a terrorist over there, it’s got a lot to do with this shit happening right here.) Yesterday a young journalist from the Guardian (Britain’s most major centre-left intelligent broadsheet newspaper, who’s been disappointingly cynical on Corbyn too at times) contacted me out of the blue on Facebook, asked to talk, and asked whether my page was covered in pro-Corbyn material. Oh yes, says I, how did you guess? Laughs, does he. And will I tell him my story? Oh yes, says I, for sure.

So we’ll see what happens. Stay tuned for the next instalment, and please comment and share, share, share, and meantime I’ll perhaps see some of you at Exeter Green Fair (Devon, UK) on Saturday as I show off my wares and meet some more good folk.

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Comfort blankets?

Amidst the intensity of my feelings for the current political landscape, a little hiatus as my next work deadline is postponed for reasons to do with rain, and so a moment of stillness to write about weaving.

Weaving is almost always a relief, a comfort blanket.

 

To fit in with a once-dreamed smallholding life, I chose a methodical, solo craft because I knew I needed the soothing, and so it is. I feel a little selfish just getting on with my own, enjoyable, thing though when there is so much wrong in the world. Is this the current dividing line between political left and right, where in the latter you just get on with making things work for you?

Is it possible to feather one’s own nest without exploiting others? The debt money analysis would have it that it’s not, given that our current mechanism of money creation is through the generation of debt, *requiring* everyone to extract surplus value from any transaction simply in order to service loans, and thus inclining the dog to eat the dog. On Saturday I heard, and met, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s right hand, shadow chancellor John McDonnell, and though monetary reform does not yet seem to be an explicit part of his ‘New Economics’, his proposals could begin to lay the foundations for nationalised positive (non-debt) money. It seems that this could release us from a deadlock that currently severely limits the effect of most policy for wealth equality. (Above all, I came away feeling that he was a good, bright, trustworthy man; not radical, but a wholesome, committed, social democrat.)

One of the key messages I’m reading into politics at the moment is that things need to and are starting bottom-up, i.e. we are the change. If we are the new economics, what can each of us do in our little spheres to change our own habits and the wider culture?

I don’t consider money a necessary evil, but as something neutral that can oil the wheels. Currency is like lubricant: it needs to flow evenly throughout the engine, not pool or leak or sput with airlocks. However perhaps there are parts of the machine that can operate without lubricant – perhaps with a coolant, instead. If the oil in the engine is money, then the coolant is perhaps goodwill.

You may have seen my post about barter, and new dedicated webpage. I’m relocating from a lush Devon valley to nearby higher ground for a short time, and my pitch fee will be looking after a polytunnel. I’ll do some extra harvesting in exchange for eating from it. I’ve mentioned already that as well as ongoing mechanicry/scarves exchange I’ve been offered an iPhone for a snug (only sadly the older US iPhones won’t work here in Europe); an impressive accordion for a couple of family picnic blankets (thanks for your patience, Sarah); and I’m about to receive a ready-to-go DSLR Nikon D80 camera as part-payment for a shawl, so my photos will be much the better. Very excited.

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My weavings are expensive: I can’t compete with the low labour costs of some countries, so it’s nice to offer flexibility for those less able to afford costlier UK-made crafts. As well as barter and the option to pay in instalments, I’m wondering about introducing a Robin Hood pricing system in which I offer weavings at two different prices: the ‘Sheriff’s’ price and the ‘Merry Men’s’ price, with the former being above the cost of production and the latter below. It would rely on honesty (I wouldn’t want to vet people), with those able to afford more subsidising those able to afford less.

Thinking about feathering one’s own nest and those who’ve had to flee their nest, another idea is to test the water for selling blankets at one and a half times their production cost and undertake to make a second blanket half-covered by that price which I and the buyer would jointly donate to refugees or other homeless people in the winter. If you haven any experience of this kind of arrangement, I’d be glad to hear your comments below.

I started getting excited about blankets as soon as I started this business, and though I’ve not made that many I’m still compelled by them more than by any of the other things I make. There’s something truly honest about a blanket.

Bearing in mind the picnic blanket photoshoot I did on a Scottish island beach where the wind was so strong I had to stake the thing to the sand with knives, I was planning a similar scene down here in Devon…

Picnic hamper close up

…but then had another idea. You may have seen it already: ‘Never mind the picnic…’

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Does this make the blankets a little less honest?! After the saucier scenario I enjoyed a return to a more innocent vignette:

 

The top key phrase that people use in searches that land them on my weavings is ‘men’s poncho’. I never wanted to make ponchos – though didn’t mind if instead I could call them ‘ruanas’ (for red-haired Irish maidens) or ‘mauds’ (for kilt-clad Scottish shepherds), or ‘capes’ (Johnny Depp or some such swarth on horseback). Just not ‘ponchos’. But people don’t search much for ‘ruanas’ or ‘mauds’, and I’m not sure that ‘cape’ is an accurate description of what I make (suggestions, anybody?). However, when someone approached me requesting a ‘poncho that looked like a roe deer’ I was inspired to take the challenge.

I had a practice-run with some chunky undyed Bulgarian wool from Rodolpi Mountain sheep and made this large blanket-poncho whose neck I’m considering sewing up (against the votes of some kind poncho-loving followers) to make it into a plain blanket.

Rodolpi poncho draped on wall enhanced

Then I found this photo of a roe deer (by Neil McIntyre) and rummaged right to the back of my man-sized woolstore and found all the rusts, browns, greys and creams requested, and, with much trialling, undoing, redoing and cursing, made a roe deer poncho.

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I used 12 different wools: undyed Rodolpi Mountain (Bulgaria, cream and rabbit coloured), Jacob’s (Devon, dyed rust), luxury Alpaca (Devon, chestnut and chocolate), Welsh Mountain (black), Shetland (light brown), Castlemilk Moorit (Midlands, milky coffee colour) and tweed (Scotland, cream and dark brown). Here are some pictures of the happy wearer wandering in the woods (we just hope that he is not so well disguised as to be shot!):

I’m wondering about weaving a barn owl one too…

In other news, things are exciting on the publicity front: I had a poetic, rambling interview conducted by Etsy’s soft-spoken, attentive Julie Schneider by phone from New York, whose eyes, I could hear, were wide with flattering wonder (some people just have that way about them – the type who sees magic everywhere). I gave her a tour of my motorhome-workshop, revealed a few practical secrets and told her a few tales from the road. She will write it up soon and publish it as part of Etsy’s Inspiring Workplaces series, where you can read other examples of her beautiful storytelling.

Julie asked me for a photographer recommendation and I was really glad to be able to knobble old friend and photographer colleague Alice Carfrae, whose adventures in photojournalism find her mostly in China but, luckily for me, briefly back in the UK at just the right moment. Alice and I are going up onto the open moor (Dartmoor National Park) tomorrow for a photoshoot to accompany Julie’s text. To make the most of the light and atmosphere Alice will stay with me overnight so as to capture some dusk, night-time and dawn shots too, and in our own time Alice has suggested we cook up an additional pitch for a magazine. She’ll be earning some more weaving credit, as another happy barter. She will be my first overnight guest, probably sleeping in close proximity to Murphy – good job she’s a dog-lover! (If you are too, keep an eye out for her upcoming assignment for Dog TV, where I’ve heard that there will be some exciting action takes.) The fruits of our labour will appear here next time (and there will be some blankets involved).

Meantime, back to the political campaigning in the hopes that social/environmental justice and true democracy rather than neoliberalist guzzling will come to define post-Brexit Britain. I’m looking forward to seeing Corbyn live in action in Cornwall on Saturday. I’ll probably need to write about it, as I’ve needed to write about a couple of other significant political meetings lately – one here, and one forthcoming on the emerging Progressive Alliance. However I’m endeavouring to get my purely political rants heard elsewhere so that this blog retains some focus on weaving and the handmade lifestyle and doesn’t bend your ear.

Onwards!