Somebody suggested I write a newsletter. I prefer to write blog posts, contextualising my work in eco-social and political concerns. However, it’d be interesting to hear your comments below in case anyone would like to receive a more prosaic These Isles weaving update in their inbox periodically? This post is intended to read a little more like such a weaving newsletter.
Firstly, may I remind you that I’ve a barter page on this site that I try and keep up to date, as I welcome non-monetary payments for weavings in essential items listed there. I also invite you to check my payments and Etsy shop policies should you be considering a purchase, in case paying in instalments may be more affordable for you.
The first actual news item is that I’ve had two articles on eco-political makership published on wise and sympathetic platforms, Lowimpact.org and No Serial Number. I’ve created a ‘Writings‘ page on this website where future publications will be listed.
I’m glad to report that my work has also been featured in the No Serial Number blog in a lovely article called ‘Landscape Medicine‘ by Kate Stuart of the Northumbrian Phoenix Green Store. I already have a ‘Featured in‘ webpage, where other publishers have interviewed me. All this has hearteningly generated many great discussions as well as a number of extra sales, phew (it had been scarily slow).
Here are some recent fruits of the loom, including, ahem, one of the finest shawls to date, and some pictures of the last photoshoot on a Breton beach:
So I rented a little cottage in Brittany for the last of the winter and paid some of the rent in weaving credit. Part of the appeal was a woodburner, and part was a conservatory: the latter gave me a bigger workspace in which to try out additional weaving kit. The rationale for this was that increased productivity might result in more sales, since sales are often triggered by new listings.
With the new treadle, I found I was able to produce my narrower items faster because of not needing to put down the shuttle between picks (latitudinal threads). But after making two batches of beautiful (I thought) scarves at this faster speed, taking fabulous photos of them, doing all my usual social media plugging right at the moment when the weather was coldest, yet *still* not increasing sales frequency, I concluded that production speed is not a significant issue. (Here’s the political/economic analysis of what I already understood to be *the* most significant issue for all small makers and producers of conscience.)
If I bought, or bartered (thanks for your offers, I may yet pursue this) more equipment – boat shuttles and a mechanical bobbin winder – I could weave wider widths faster too. This would allow me to make finer cloth than I currently do. People have requested baby wraps, which are currently not possible/cost effective (even by my own terrible efficiency terms), but which might thus become more feasible.
However, this experiment has taught me that there probably isn’t any way to make my current products much faster, more efficiently, or more cheaply than I currently do. (And exporting the labour to where it’s cheaper is not an option my conscience will permit – see aforementioned writings.)
It’s also taught me that I might never have the patience for churning out larger quantities of anything, given my character’s need for constant innovation and experiment. Just the small productivity increase in scarfmaking had me cursing the higher frequency of finishing tasks: setting a domestic iron on my cloth for 40 seconds in each and every positon when I’m processing six scarves at a time, and then washing and brushing them all at once felt like a lot of very slow work all at once.
Can I skip any steps in the finishing process (especially the energy-greedy steps), or just use a washing machine to do the same job? The answers to those questions seems to be ‘no, for the sake of quality’ and ‘no, not unless I’m generating the solar energy for the washing machine myself, and not unless I can trust the machine not to throw a weaving-wrecking wobbly, which they sometimes do’.
And all this led me down a different alley.
When I was young I was aware of rug weavers galore, one of whom was, and is, a very dear family friend. So when I started up weaving, in the same way that I always used to say I wouldn’t be a craftsperson like my mother, I thought that, like others around me, I wouldn’t weave rugs. However the treadle experiment, together with some thorny conversations in the Green Cloth Collective, suggests that, contrary to demand, I should perhaps cease making luxury items that require either super soft imported wool or labour-intensive softening processes on my favourite Scottish island wool. What our native wool is best for is the floor. And in the Brittany cottage are some very fine examples of beautiful rugs made by said very dear family friend.
And so, feeling stuck in so many areas of my life, I got very excited about trying another new thing. Here are the first (sold), second (for sale) and third (unravelled) rug attempts. You can probably see my excitement at using weft instead of warp to replicate and abstract the seascapes I’ve been enjoying weaving this last year.
I used up the linen warp I had, with reasonable success, but then tried some cotton, and have so far had to redress the loom four times with the same warp and still have not got it right. My loom is not robust like the huge, heavy floor looms usually used for rugmaking, so my method is, guess what, extremely slow and inefficient. I’m hoping and praying that getting the set and tension right will mean that I can make perfect rugs on it however, as back in my motorhome I don’t have room to upgrade looms. (Having had difficulty fitting two workstations into a conservatory that offered three to four times the space of my motorhome workspace, I’ve been amazed myself all over again at how well the tiny motorhome workshop works, actually.) I had the kind of difficulties you see below with the Hebridean tweed yarn at the beginning, so I’m hoping that ‘simply’ getting to know the feel of the new warp and weft relationship will result in consistently good rugmaking.
I’ve been reading Sir Christopher Frayling ‘On Craftsmanship’ (2017) and love what he says about the skill of artisanry: unlike the relationship between a worker and a factory machine, where the worker is but a lever, he believes that a maker with a tool is as ‘a musician with a musical instrument’ (p.76). Lamenting the deskilling tendency of the Industrial Revolution and its enduring trajectory, he highlights the value of the mystery ‘only revealed to skilled hands and eyes after years of experiment’ (p.36), and ‘the knowledge which enables [the artisan] to understand and overcome the constantly arising difficulties that grow out of variations, not only in the tools and materials but in the conditions under which the work must be done’ (p.78). Oh yes, I know these challenges, aye.
And then, via the Arts and Crafts Movement of William Morris, John Ruskin et al, Frayling returns to the social narrative that he understandably considers lost in today’s arts and crafts world. He makes the political, ideological point which is dearest to me, and which the Green Cloth Collective champions: ‘It was not necessarily a matter of protecting skills, as Morris thought, but rather of protecting the measure of control the craftspeople exercised over their work – in their own time, to their own pace, perhaps with their own machinery’. As he goes on to say, we all ‘seem to have a common, strong belief in the importance of controlling every aspect of the work [we] do, and having the time to control every aspect of the work [we] do.’ (p.81)
And that reminds me of Clause IV of the old Labour Party constitution, about the workers owning the means of production and exchange. And so my first weaving newsletter has reverted to a bloglike political rant after all. Quite satisfactorily.