An invitation to the Green Cloth Fair

Last night I went to an inspiring talk at Schumacher College, Dartington. Schumacher, named to evoke the author’s principles of ‘small is beautiful’ and ‘economics as if people mattered’, was founded by a forefather of the UK green movement, ‘earth pilgrim’ Satish Kumar. As I’ve said here before, even though I was brought up relatively poor and firmly anti-capitalist, his decades-old contention that wealth, not poverty, is humanity’s great problem, struck me profoundly as a threshold concept that I return to more and more.

Visiting Austrian economist Christian Felber began his talk by proclaiming Schumacher one of the world’s only ‘true’ universities. It is tiny, but its programmes are wholly holistic: systems thinking reveals the interconnectedness of all things.

Felber offers an economics for the common good: an economics in which goods and services are rated and incentivised for sustainable and ethical production. He posits that this requires a democracy for the common good: a democracy in which we, the people, are sovereign. One of his tennets is a monetary system for the common good: a monetary system in which we, the people, can issue money. Another is a legal system for the common good: a legal system in which we, the people, can initiate or block laws. (I note, sadly but proudly, that my father’s native Italy is the only country in which the people have one of these rights – the last one. Note to self: obtain Italian passport.) He proposes that we, the people, begin writing a local constitution which could eventually become a building block for a national or international constitution. (In case this all sounds impossibly Utopian, see here for the extent of his organisation and its research base.)

So as with every idea that I get really excited about, the take home message is:

Be the change!

Last year in a moment of magic in e-conversation with fellow craftspeople Richard Toogood and Allan Brown, I hit upon the idea of a Green Cloth Fair. On the face of it this could be the textiles equivalent of a wood fair, but now the idea has gestated I know that my initial excitement was for the deeper meaning I glimpsed then: ‘Green’ to me means ethical and sustainable. ‘Cloth’ to me means craft in general and its place in the fabric of society. ‘Fair’ to me means gathering, community hub, exchange of goods, ideas, practices, skills, favours, hardships, joys. The Green Cloth Fair is a political micro-movement methinks.

The social, political and cultural significance of the marketplace is a richness I’ve known as a trader both physically and digitally. And my personal gain from this richness means that I cannot truly commit myself to anti-capitalism. As says Bordieu, capital takes many forms and each of us has some at our disposal, whether that be in the form of time, skill, labour, talent or material resource. Greedy or fearful accumulation of capital results in a race to the bottom. Neoliberal capitalism orchestrates for this. But careful use of capital is natural and wholesome, and I want to be free to use it wisely. Said Felber at Schumacher, and so says a common folksong, the difference is in the emphasis: it’s not what you have that counts; it’s what you do with what you have.

As per populist movements of right and left across the world, the gallingly-winning Brexit slogan of ‘Taking back control’ resonated with so many. To a Cornish fisherman it may mean taking back exclusive fishing rights in Cornish waters; to a politician it may mean devolution; to a factory worker it may mean reviving manufacturing; to a student it may mean learning how to question; to a parent it may mean growing the family’s food; to a farmer it may mean shaping a local agricultural policy; to an activist it may mean exercising the right to protest; to a writer it may mean freedom of speech; to a musician it may mean keeping the old songs alive; to the landless it may mean making cloth from the fibre found in wild-growing plants.

It may mean as many things as there are people. The principles are autonomy, self-governance, self-sufficiency, interdependency through fair trade, and the political freedom to make the most of and care for our individual and shared heritage. For me, it is about crafting a low-impact livelihood that sustains me in a new order of producerist economics for the common good. And I know I am just one of many.

So I invite all serious and political artisans, whatever your medium, to join me and fellow makers worldwide in forming the Green Cloth Collective: an online (initially) community of professionals, would-be professionals and activists whose resilience lies in the good that we have the power to make with our hands. Let’s see what we can make together.

 

eloise sabatier web crop

Photograph by Beppe Calgaro

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The cats who walk by themselves

He of the lavender field blanket requested splashes of marigold. My mother remarked on how clashing colours sing in perfect proportion, and out of the remaining warp, I weave her idea of buddleia.

Budleia scarf 3 flower colour
BudleiaBuddleia, like nettle, is another one overlooked: a lurker in decaying industrial landscapes, abandoned dwellings and railway sidings; a post-apocalyptic pioneer; resistant; home always to a million butterflies. (Vive la revolution!)

The rest of the warp speaks to me of bluebell wood, and though weaving the wrong season is uncomfortable, my wool stash can always do bluebell wood. Were I a slicker marketing operation I might save these for the right season, but since it’s hard to sell anything at all in bluebell May, the hunger patch, I offer them now: a breath of Beltane for winter warmth.

Bluebell wood kidsilk scarf foldsBluebellwood shawl large baby alpaca grass closeBluebellwood dual weavingBluebell wood scarf foldsBluebell wood scarf end landscapeBluebellwood shawl large baby alpaca furry friendBluebellwood shawl large baby alpaca swirlBluebell wood tweed shawl folds

A coven of weavers (would that be a ‘wuvven’?) gather in a flat in a converted mill. And then with a beauty who unexpectedly walks into my life straight from the farms of the nettle-weavers in Nepal, and just at a moment when we both need a friend, I trek across the country to a darker wood, whose colours are muted, whose tall trees let only a little light slant in to catch the smoke of the continual fire in the early morning.

Some people are gathered there I’ve known I need to meet, spinning, weaving, dyeing, retting, scutching, hackling. A bunch of cats who walk by themselves, for a number of years they have nonetheless co-ordinated something lovely: yurts, looms, wheels, scutch horses, distaffs, flags, maps, tarps, trucks, tents and trivets make a productive and roughly poetic camp. Many visit, get involved, do their first weaving and wonder why it’s taken them a lifetime; one has even visited the derelict Welsh mill I’ve had my eye on. Ideas swirl beneath the activity, not ready yet to crystallise, but we agree that this could well be the embryo of the Green Cloth Fair I’ve had my mind on. We who walk by ourselves are nonetheless plugged into the currents of the collective: enough practice for a critical mass and the zeitgeist will soon be ours…  

And if you’re still reading, you’re probably one of us.

I’d like to say that I take the fleece I’ve been harbouring and finally learn to spin; that I take the skeins I’ve been storing and finally vegetable dye them; that I learn all the steps in plant fibre processing; that we cook up plans for fairs, caravans, festival acts, co-operatives, community interest companies, outreach work in inner city schools and prisons…

However I just dip my toe in this time. In helping clear up though I do learn how to assess whether flax has been over, under or perfectly retted (that is, half-rotted – I think – ready for fibre extraction).

And I do meet the human spirit there firegazing: worldly, wounded, reconstructing, loving, sharing, rapping and cursing. We sing, and a new song of mine on its first outing goes round and round. We laugh, and it’s more than I have in years. And though we dream of connection, partnership, collaboration and community, off we drift individually on our solitary journeys perpetually doing our solitary thing.

But like my own kin here and abroad; like the folk club in Stornoway; the selkie family at Husinish; the other families in the Highlands and islands on the road and those rooted in the Irish hills, these people in these woods are clan, tribe, home.

Honest cloth

My uncle is dying of a brain tumour in a nursing home, and I’m on the way with hound and accordion having promised him a tune. Radio 4, which sometimes irritates the hell out of me when it does its privilege-preening BBC establishmentism that is abhorrently irrelevant to most of society (or should be, IMHO), is on form today.

Imagine knowing you’re in the path of the ‘perfect storm’, battoning down the hatches and praying they’re strong enough; or stuffing your car and praying you get to shelter in time; or turning away from the evacuation aircraft because they won’t take your dog; or tethering your livestock to trees as if holding them down will save them from hurricanes and floods. Imagine knowing that you’re not quite in the path of the storm but that the path of tornadoes cannot be predicted at all. Imagine knowing they’re coming but not knowing where.

Imagine being a Muslim in Myanmar, where the state for years denies ethnic cleansing, and the world doesn’t know.

Imagine being cleared by fire from your village because the land you inhabit is to be enclosed for the grazing of sheep for wealth to conquer other lands.

Journalist Dan Saladino takes us to Georgia, at the crossroads of Western Asia and Eastern Europe – and here my tale beautifies, for Dan Saladino is a poet, and his programme is about wine.

We hear Orthodox Christians sing their prayers, and we’re told that wine here is truly sacred, exalted in love. But as the programme unfolds I observe that this sanctity is not religious, and this love not holy. This sanctity and love are heartwarmingly political and personal.

Georgia’s survival down the centuries, and therefore its identity, has depended on winemaking. Birthplace of wine some 8000 years ago, it has been the livelihood of a disproportionately high number of citizens. Caught in the crossfire of empire-building, her warriors tucked root stock from their vines under their tunics when they went out on the war path to defend their territory. Not religious or superstitious belief (although maybe it was that as well), but pragmatic: if, whilst out fighting, our villages are sacked, we can replant our vines and rebuild our livelihood.

Light enough to travel: your loom, your yarn, your computer, your accordion, your hound, all in your van. Your livelihood: freedom and resilience both.

Eloïse of These Isles portrait by Alice Carfrae, courtesy of Etsy, Inc

Saladino visits a family who’ve been making wine for generations. Their vineyard is more like an untended garden, where vegetables and nettles entangle beneath the vines. The vintner, with a vesselful of chagrin, admits that this began with laziness but became culture as the grape thrived, and through the foreign tongue you can hear his grin.

My unplanned cloth colours, warp improvised with impatience, impulsiveness and a reckless glee in spontaneity. A deliberate practice in organicness: chaotic emergence of landscape inspiration; only slightly stylised, and often then by luck. And people kindly say I’m great with colour. We are but conduits: the wove weaves itself, as a song writes itself, as a story tells itself. Less choice than we like to believe; less control than we wish we could have.

Longest green shawl 4

The vintner describes a handful of a grape: difficult to grow, unpredictable as a plant and as a wine, changeable even through the day according to unknown factors. His wife, who has known him since childhood, names it after him, and laughs with great love in her voice.

With a qvevriful of pride, the vintner describes his zero-compromise approach. Non-judgmentally he criticises farming practices that correct and over-correct in constant compensation: put this in the soil, do that to the plant; do this to the land, spray that on the plant. A process of refinement that can easily go too far.

Every artist knows this one, and everyone else too: the table-leg job. Crazy artificial.

Every weaving has flaws, and I have a constant dilemma of which to correct, if any, and which to leave. As a bit of a pedant, this is good practice. My rule of thumb is whether the flaw compromises the structural integrity of the cloth. Will a mis-threading result in a constant crease along the length? Will a missed pick result in a loop of thread that will snag? My other rule of thumb is whether the colour arrangement  is enhanced or compromised. If I’m working a neat geometric pattern with colours symmetrical (which is rare), I feel to correct everything. If I’m working a landscape with twenty organically-blended colours and a thread breaks, I sometimes like to tie on a new colour in its place – whatever is to hand, just for the sake of it. (Ooo, the rebellion.) Sometimes there are flaws which I take days to correct. Sometimes there are flaws which I haven’t time to correct. Sometimes there are flaws that I can’t correct. And sometimes there are flaws that I choose to leave. For Allah. Or someone.

Flawed cloth

Saladino talks with an American Gospel singer in her twenties who’s emigrated to Georgia. We hear her soulful voice soaring in praise above the congregation. Gladness and gratitude. She’s also got Wine, and has learnt to make it. She laments that Georgian wine is referred to as ‘natural wine’. Chemical free from good, simple, time-honoured, clean farming, she prefers to call it simply ‘wine’.

I think of ‘organic cloth’, ‘pure wool’ and so on. Cloth. My colours are chemically dyed. They are cheaper. Yesterday I bought some yarns imported from Peru. They were the most beautiful. I use wool. I love it, and it’s better than petro-fibre. Perhaps my own zero-compromise tendencies need the practice of compromise, even if it’d be better to avoid it.

Of wine and wool

But I’m hoping that a Green Cloth Co-operative might emerge from the Nettles for Textiles group. Maybe individual foragers around the country would do the first steps in processing plant fibres and then send the fibre to be spun in a waterwheel powered, co-operatively-run and commonly-owned mill. (Yeah, ok, the idea needs a lot of interrogation, and there may be better ones. But it’s one beautiful dream of many.)

The Gospel singer says every bottle of wine is different – some amber, some cloudy, some white with the character of red. I think of my accidental elderflower champagne: one magical bottle in a batch of cordial of very variable drinkability.

She says she’s not looking for perfection. She’s looking for honesty.

People doing their amazing thing

Does anyone else notice the year as it turns at Lúnasa? That very day (before I realise it is that day) I notice the light and air quality change, and it happens again on September 1st. Turn towards autumn.

I’m in Devon, SW England, held here all summer by lush valleys, safe parking and interesting folk. Wild swimming and weaving the sea some more.

Small sea shawl shell wave portrait clouds

Large sea shawl portrait cloud shell

 

Then conceptually to the South of France weaving a lavender field blanket at the behest of an artistic Californian who sets me a challenge with plenty of essential creative freedom:

 

There’s a remnant for sale in my shop if anyone wants to make a cushion (I can supply filling), hanging, bag or small curtain?

Lavender blanket test patch

 

Some of the leftover warp lends itself to bluebell wood:

 

And another handful of new poncho listings:

Huge rodolpi front 1

Large Jacob poncho front

Rodolpi maud landscape

Rodolpi jacquard front

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And  I go to Sidmouth Folkweek, which brings many heroes to the Regency bit of coast. Young ones with young tutors from Halsway share fresh ideas. Ninebarrow are gently magnetic with delicate guitars, crystalline harmonies and two harmonia. Josienne Clarke sings like Innana’s guardian angel. Vicki Swan and Jonny Dyer spin yarns with theatrical virtuosity in a time trip to great halls bursting with Purcell. Stonehenge morris fiddler John Dipper shares a sombrely mysterious processional march to the stones. Leveret do their mesmerising thing again. (As someone with a horse bred for haute école and a hound whose action is similarly stunning, I ache with admiration for the suspension and elevation in their Playford and other tunes. They even play the Italian one at my request.) Sam Sweeney does a one-off for a second time with Martin Carthy and it’s Aquarian in character, his viola as surprising as he says is Carthy’s approach to tune-playing.

Monbiot does his final powerful gig with Ewan McLennan – words for the age of loneliness and songs for the cause. (I weep.) As I leave I hear someone shouting my name and a dear man I knew from my days in HE is manning his Network of Wellbeing stall and continuing the valuable work of active community-building.

And so many other heroes in marquees and pubs that I have to choose not to see. As I get ready for bed on my last evening, schoolmate Seth Lakeman’s  unmistakeable verve strides down the hill to my van from the Bulverton Marquee. I’m in a leafy car park near the beach with twenty other campervans, though most of their occupants are still out partying.

And in the hours between all this, like a moth to the light or a traveller who knows they just have to detour but not why, I keep going back to the music fair, talking accordions with a number of fantastic nerds, learning intensively, trying all the best ones, getting back ache, and falling in love… but she’s expensive and the van is so laden that the steering is light, and there are already two others…

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My official home is near the counter-cultural hub of Totnes. Many of us both love it and hate it: all the erudition of Dartington Hall; all the music of Britain’s finest; all the conservatism of farming England; all the ideas of hippies and revolutionaries; all the smack addicts of a desperate city corner; all the wealth of the South East; all the deprivations of a rural town. Every other person is an artist or a therapist, and people come here to get healed but find a community that indulges their idiosyncrasies. The market is the best I’ve encountered in Britain, and ditto the buskers. The norm is to have children from a number of different partnerships. It is not surprising to see someone dowsing whilst jewellery shopping. Many have settled the surrounding land in communes. Plenty have ascended high in the enlightenment competition. If you’re stretched thin on the treadmill of normality it is threatening and hard to join in. If you’re sceptical you’re wary of the uncritical. If you struggle with your inner zealot, you have to make peace with everyone else’s happy clapping.

Local resident and award-winning Radio 4 poet Matt Harvey sums it up hilariously, astutely and compassionately, in a satire of the Totnes Hug, the particularly Totnesian challenges of choosing curtains, and the rivalry from much straighter neighbours from TorquayAnd here’s a poem a bunch of us made with him at a Green Party fundraiser last night.

Poem by a Matt Harvey audience

And here’s a song that came grabbling out with a few others that had to tell themselves to me in a tumble last week:

Jersey Motel

It doesn’t yet have a melody; anybody?

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Meantime the Green Cloth community mushrooms over at Nettles for Textiles if you want to join us (it’s a fascinating gathering), and aforementioned inundated host Allan Nettle Man is currently mulling his worldview to share on my blog at some time hence.