About weavingtheseisles

An ex-educator, would-be musician and by-chance weaver, I’ve uprooted from a Dartmoor smallholding to travel the Anglo-Celtic Isles in a bus on a weavery investigation with a loom, a whistle and a hound, in search of autonomy and Celticness. I roam the most beautiful parts of Britain, Brittany and Ireland. My suppliers are local, my trade is online, my colleagues and customers are all over the world, and my inspiration is wherever I park.

The people in the place

So I’d been wondering who my friends might be here this year.

Two families have taken me in. One is the St. Kilda swim family I’ve described a few times. They live a semi-rural life on the edge of town – the best of many worlds. We meet to eat charity cupcakes, drink from their homemade drinks cupboard (since soft fruit grows easily here), ceilidh and natter. Their daughter brings me eggs from their own hens – I love that crofting is still a part of so many people’s lifestyles here. She gives some helpful tips for my househunt, and invites me to supper. So then I am supping with both the captain of the world record-setting St. Kilda swim, and the big guy who landed first and punched the air with a ‘Yabba dabba doo!’ that echoed round the Husinish mountains that bordered that desert island shore. It’s a sweet evening.

And the other family are the ones I first met beachclearing. Their croft, where they’re building their house and planting hundreds of trees, is my transient Hebridean haven. I am heading here when a terrible noise comes from my engine, and the AA send a local recovery lorry that escorts me back to Stornoway. I love Stornoway but the West represents respite and I keep trying to get *out* of town and back into the hills. The mechanic I limped to once before recognises me with a laugh and on the spot makes a new adjuster rod to replace the broken one in my alternator and I’m back on the road again, no drama.

So then on to my new base on the beachclearers’ croft. I collect stones for them, pick some of their mint, wonder at their neighbouring broch, bathe in their rushes-machair-and-bay-of-islands view, and share tales and tea. They are soft spoken and I could listen to their voices for hours. I notice that the East Scottish accent has sounds in common with the Geordie accent, and the trained linguist in me makes a mental map of the geographical pooling and spreading of sounds. (The Lewis accent has more in common with the Welsh and some of the Irish, to my mind.)

They take me out in their little classic sailboat, and the day is Caribbean. They show me the white beaches on the backs of the islands; the sea caves and the ones that have caved in to roofless passages and made stacks and needles; the blackhouses, beehive dwellings and a lagoon. We see skewers, and draw up alongside a gannet, huge and regally swanlike but with its signature pale blue and yellow points.

Angus gave me my first and only fishing lesson in a burn near here three years ago, and now I catch six large mackerel. Jane sticks her thumb in their mouths and snaps their heads backwards to kill them sharply, and I watch, learn, practice on a dead one and resolve to face this final step next time. I fillet them, wash them, salt some, bake some in thyme, and boil some for Murph. He is unappreciative, as he has been in the past with roadkill or any other honourable-wholesome-perfect-ecology special treat I think that I’m giving him.

They show me the best 3G signal spot, which also happens to be a beautiful grassy divet between gold-lit knolls with a view over a two-mile stretch of white sand in a circular deep blue bay. I spend a day doing online promotion, which in this case means mostly curating an e-pinboard of works inspired by or made in the Hebrides, and contacting the artists and makers with compliments, an introduction to my work, and an invitation to cross-publicise.

Then I finally get back to the loom, and it’s a welcome change from househunting. I’d left rug #3 at a difficult stage: I’d undone and redone the warp three times to alter the set; then I’d woven half a rug and had to unravel it; then I’d begun redressing the loom yet another time, but had been called away to househunting and then the major migration from Brittany to Lewis and had left the loom just before my least favourite stage. I’d knotted an additional 70 or so ends onto the earlier attempts, and this had involved quite a lot of adjusting, fiddling, bodging and swearing. (‘I’m good at what I do, sure I can make rugs too’.) Now I have to beam it again, which means rolling the threads onto the back beam with a perfectly even tension. I’d forgotten the struggles of my first two years’ weaving as I strove to manipulate my equipment with little felt understanding of the subtle but pivotal difference in how the materials behaved. My favourite yarn, that used in Harris Tweed, which is currently and perhaps ongoingly my local source, was difficult to learn. But once tamed into my particular corral of kit, set, technique and product, I’d got complacent, and didn’t allow for the challenges of working it differently, with a different (linen, or linen/cotton) warp.

I’ve some rare and native breeds wools spun by Blacker Yarns in Cornwall which I’d hoarded excitedly when I first began. I remember the man who gave me my first loom watching me collect all sorts and, himself a craftsman of wood and metal, cautioning me to understand which I would need rather than to indulge in the sweet-shop-glee. He was right, and for three years this lovely and most ethical of stuff sat in my pigeonholes unused. I even got to the point of feeling I should just damn well use it up in a hurry to make space for some more Harris/Lewis and Shetland wool with their alluring tweedy flecked landscape colour blends that have formed my niche. The Cornish-spun breeds wool is thicker, and its palette more limited, and so less laboursome as a weft, and less convoluted as design inspiration. Fearing having to undo 20 inches of weaving all over again, I decided to go back to my roots, for this undyed breeds stuff is the wool of the 1970s craft revival whose weavers gave me the first vision for my own intended sustainable weaving business. Though currently absorbed in Hebridean colours – which on some days, as I say, are Caribbean – I content myself with the undyeds, which are plenty beautiful in their own right. I didn’t envisage it, but I find myself weaving weed and flotsam on white sand, and so I present to you a true fruit of all these isles, with wools from Galway, Ronaldsay, England, Shetland and the Hebrides, all spun in Launceston, and woven and photographed on Lewis:

 

 

Another pitstop in Stornoway and the launderette late afternoon. I’d not allowed for a queue in the tiny room, but it is here that I meet some other significant friends.

Tom and Emily are six weeks into their new van life. We all have things to do in town the following day and are looking for a nearby camp spot, so, bumping into each other again ten minutes after the laundry chatter, I take them up the coast to a spot I’ve not yet revisited. They love it, our dogs love each other, and we have a very late night. They’re vegan foragers, builders and adventurers, quick-minded, low-impact and switched on, and we have much to say to each other. I check with them later as to whether it’s ok to identify them in my blog, and we laughingly agree that they will be Esmerelda, speaker of seven languages and player of seven musical instruments, and six-pack Tim with red shorts. You’ll see why as this story unfolds.

Parting the next day is sad, as travelling we make intense connections and part with a wish to reconvene that we know we may never in fact realise. Emily makes keyrings and Tom chooses one for me as a gift – the one that says ‘Fearless’, and I laugh, think of a meme I saw recently proclaiming that ‘if you fear failure, you have already put it on the table as an option’, and tell him that I’m scared as hell most of the time. It’s good medicine for that very reason, and I’m touched. I flash my hazards goodbye as I disappear up the windy lane o’er the brow o’ the brae.

Four days later they accept my invitation to a theatrical work-in-progress performance in a remote community centre. Talented Glasgow artists convened by Julia Taudevin keen tales and songs in Gaelic, Italian, Swahili, Country and Gospel of migration, emigration and loss: parting, voyaging, drowning and asylum. On shores around the world they describe local fisherfolk; Jane Campion’s beach piano heroine; women raped; and babies whisked over mountains and seas to be brought up apart from their twins and mothers or photographed face down and bloated on an unwelcoming European shore. The performance is beautiful, moving and profound, with roots in tradition and an edge that’s cuttingly relevant.

At 930pm the slanting sunshine is still warm and bright, the sky still endlessly blue. Tom’s motto for finding a parking place for the night is always to twist, so from the campsite where we met this time I lead them a merry dance around my favourite peninsula, getting out to show them where I stay, where the internet signal is, where the music is, where the broch is, and where the evening sun flags the buttercups. We’re rushing carefully over the little humpy windy lane through the machair and dunes and divets to round into my favourite parking place on the cliff to meet the sun just as it sets over the sea – a sight that they haven’t yet caught on these islands – and as we pull in they throw up their hands and grin and gasp.

We eat the second half of our ealier-rushed curry and discuss the theatre piece. Then, mildly whiskey fuelled but drunk rather on idyll and red mackerel sky, we descend the grassy brae to the beach and wade into the dimpsy sea and swim and laugh and whoop. The happiest moments in life.

Dexter the Retriever swims far and strong and wants to rescue us from our watery jubilation. (In France I met a man who trained such dogs to perform such rescues.) Tom doesn’t swim more than a few metres at a time, but forges our path, diving fearlessly into the waves from the shoreside ahead of us. Emily next, the stronger swimmer between us, and less afraid of jellyfish, and we meercat our hair and faces dry, but swim a good distance parallel to shore, she leading and encouraging. We’re exhilarated and empowered with the effort of the night time thrill, the sunset rising and falling behind each gentle wave, sublime.

I believe the sandbed to be vast and flat beneath the water, as it deepens only very gradually. The evening is extraordinarily calm for these shores, but I fear all water, and have spent long hours watching, though alas not registering, the complexity of this bay. With my scant knowledge and little thought, I suspect a rip in the middle of the main beach. As we approach the centre of it I wonder whether a pronounced roll there at the very shallow end of the waves is the body of last week’s dead cetacean. It is not, but as Emily, last in the water, is rammed by the sudden force of a wave even as we exit here in the ankle deep, I sense that it is the right moment to get out. We stand and marvel at where the brief ferocity came from in all the kind, surrounding calm. Back in their van, we enjoy a beer.

I sleep well in their company, and the next day is another Caribbean one. It’s Saturday, and I’ve planned to work, but of course we are having too good a time.

Tom & Emily & dogs at Cliobh

From our cliff top coffee spot, Emily points out the most regular and yet strangest and prettiest repeating wave pattern we have ever seen, as the tide reaches up the beach at the end of its flat bed to the markedly undulating shelf it has created high up the beach – a formation that I subsequently realise might not have been there just the week before when I’d first arrived. Perhaps it formed with the full moon yesterday.

We bask in the warm blue view, and go for another swim ‘before breakfast’. The water is much colder than it was last night – or was that the whiskey? We retrace our swimsteps, though with much more effort and brace, and a different type of squeal, and then sunbathe to dry off and warm up. Murph, happier with a pack and more independent, explores the expanse of beach, and my loudest whistle – which is a headsplitting finger-and-thumb-job – doesn’t bring him back awhile, so relaxed is he.

Then we adventure barefooted past the sand-buried wreck, over the grassy tonsil to the tiny far cove that’s been hiding behind a little point in the narrow bay. The rocks are sharp as we make our way down, and the rockpools not hot as we expected, but rich with weed – though I wonder why so much of it is dead or dying. Emily reminds me to forage only among the living weed, and we encourage the dogs into the rockpools too (though Dexter the water-loving Retriever needs no such). We explore the tunnels between rocks with their sudden deep holes and waves swelling in to fill them as the outgoing tide clutches at whatever it can seize from the shore. We paddle and laugh and clamber. We are kids at play, and then stand stunned and awed when we see eagle play: two huge white-tails spin and fall just a handful of yards from us and low over the cove, interlinked and spiralling downwards, furying in a whirling dervish of divine display – just when we thought that our grins could get no bigger.

Feeling blessed, we turn to go back. High and inflated but not forgetting a veneer of good sense (‘We’re not risk-takers’ said Tom, though you have to be, living this life), we recky our 100 yard route back round the little point before heading round. One little dog and one water-shy dog will not manage the watery ways even on this gentle day, so Tom will take them back over land, while Emily and I, the stronger swimmers, will go by sea. I don’t like the party splitting, but then I never do. ‘Don’t leave me,’ says the little girl inside, never given voice.

It is crystal clear, pale sand, not deep, and we think we may just wade. As we enter the water, the mood seems to change. The sky is an uninterrupted blue, and we notice no difference in the wind, but only knee deep two waves startle-hammer my ribs, and Emily suggests we go out beyond the break. I certainly don’t want to pass around the little point too close to its rocks, for my school friend taught us that the rocks are not friends when, surfing in a trio off some Cornish rocks, he had to watch his brother drown along with the other he was trying to save.

We get out through the break but find a pull so strong that Emily suggests we’re better swimming than wading. We stick close together, a team, reassured by closeness and, ostensibly, by outer confidence. She’s swimming just a few feet ahead of me starting to round the tiny point, and we’re communicating, but I’m on the outside, and then in just a few strokes and seconds, the distance between us increases dramatically, and I realise that I am being swept out. From one moment to the next I am out of my depth, out of control, feeble in the sea, able to do nothing in its invisible broil, casting uselessly in several directions, and panging with panic. I can’t swim inwards; I can’t swim crosswards; I don’t think to swim backwards to where even our entry to the water was tricky; I’m just trying uselessly not to go outwards.

Emily is closer in – safer, it seems – but closer too to the rocks, and swimming hard for them. She doesn’t think of their hostility, and keeps her voice calm, but I sense it. ‘Keep going, swim this way, towards me’. But I can’t swim towards her, much as I want to – and also don’t want to. I don’t know which way to swim, I don’t know this little cove, I don’t know how far out the rip goes, I don’t know the route to safety – I don’t know if there is one.

Emily keeps going. I want to reach her, I want to hold onto her, I want her to hold onto me. Holding hands, everything would be alright, wouldn’t it? She wants to help me; we think that she is in less trouble. I want her to come out to me, but we both know that she mustn’t. I try not to implore her with my eyes. She apologises with hers.

I cast about. Panic rises. Are these the last minutes? Is this how it happens? Is this what it’s like? Are these the choices we have to make? This beautiful day, these happy hours, this company of friends, these gifts from the gods, and then all goes wrong, and each of us alone? This would be how it happens.

‘Save yourself’, do they say? Being pulled quickly outwards, I am in danger, and, closer to the hot spots, so is she. She again tries to guide me with her voice, seeking to reassure us both. I know it’s not alright, and need her to know. ’Emily, I’m scared.’ I mean it, and she hears it, and now so is she.

Scared to death: the panic the even graver danger than the current. Said the RNLI video last year, ’Fight your instinct, not the water’. I turn onto my back to float, fight my terrror, recover my breathing a little, turn again to try and swim – another futile attempt to fight the water, and, swimming on the spot, my eyes do a desperate scan: who can help?

Out here in the wilds there are no flags, no life buoys, no ropes, no lifeguards – the remoteness is its beauty and its draw; no maps or charts of the sandscapes that change the currents with every storm. Only two people on the big beach, not very far away, but the other side of the darkest seam of water, and all they can do is stand witness.

Who can help? If we were close to one another as we wished, one drowning will drag the other under too, as an Irishman warned me after he saw father drown son and self in a Connemara loch. The Irishman on the shore could not swim – and perhaps the knowledge of not being able to swim saved his life if it stopped him from going in after the ill-fated pair. I gulp in seawater and I’m probably flailing, or doggy-paddling at best.

Who can help? Where is Tom? Tom said he can’t swim. Tom mustn’t come in. Where is Tom? ‘Tom!’ I spare my left hand a moment for a whistle that bounces round the bay – at least I learnt to do that – and Emily shouts his name.

Tom hadn’t liked going out of sight of us, and though I didn’t see him, Murph had planted on the beach in refusal. Tom had turned back to check on us, heard us both and worried, paused to judge my trajectory, seen me drifting outwards and backwards, and taken action.

I see him come back down to the cove, taking a moment to sum things up, standing on a rock, the good-looking blond shaggy man and the good-looking white shaggy dog, and the sight of these new, loyal friends looks like the lifeline. But when one is in trouble in the water, there’s no use another getting into it with them.

But Tom wades in. Which of his companions is in graver danger? I am floating on my back again, some semblance of control. Tom is coming towards me, then veers towards his wife: the choice he must make. We are both silently pleading with him to help and not to help. Tom reaches Emily, takes her in his arms.

I’m casting about again, testing all directions, finding none. Another flood of gladness as I see Dexter the Retriever beelining for me, and I think that I could grab his collar. My floating and kicking takes me sideways – or backwards, or inwards, I’m not even sure. This moment of my relative calm and a foot or two of travel is enough for my sandbar salvation: unexpectedly my feet again find the bottom, and of a sudden I am upright and stronger than the tow, and out of nowhere there’s a crofter on a quad right here above us on the machair tonsil who comes to see that we are all on our feet and wading into the cove, and collapsing on the sand stunned, shaken and ashamed, and leaning on the dogs and on each other for the warm solidarity of still-breathing bodies.

And we sure as hell won’t make those mistakes again, and I hope to goodness we never have to make those choices again, and I wish everyone safe in the water and on all their travels.

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Househunting on the edge

‘The American writer Harry W. Paige said that “home is not a place only, but a condition of the heart”. […] Like being married, being at home is not a passive state. It is a process, in which the heart must be engaged. That is as true for the reindeer herders of Siberia, whose home may be hundreds of square miles, as it is for the inhabitants of a tiny village on a tiny island. For many people this is not so. Home for them is nowhere in particular. It is the house in which their belongings are kept and in which they go to sleep at night. It extends no further than that. This is the condition of our time. It is a marriage without love, a relationship without commitment. And it is, surely, a kind of homelessness. But there is another kind of homelessness, too […] exiled from a home that no longer existed, and which in some sense, never really had […] Some had only ever lived in the place where they were born; they were shaped and defined by those places. Others had left one home and found another, in which they felt a deeper sense of belonging. […] There were also those – past and present – who’d been estranged: political and religious exiles; indigenous people whose cultures had been undermined.’

I thought I might finish the last chapter of Malachy Tallack’s Sixty Degrees North on the ferry to the islands – it’s called ‘Homecoming’, and it seemed fitting. However, reading it just now in this little roaring bay way out west, I’m glad I didn’t, because I had company and it’s had me sobbing for my own little girl self who, more than thirty years ago, awaited a return that never happened.

It is, predictably, both great and hard to come back to the first destination of my optimistic journey, now pressured to stop, set up shop, and house, and knuckle down, possibly even rejoin the ratrace or try for mortgage slavery. (No, the latter two are unlikely – probably impossible – but I’m having to consider all sorts.) The exploration this time is tainted with urgency, need, guilt (at time taken out of work) and fear.

We watched a large pod of porpoises briefly from the boat – only my third ever sighting, though now my fourth sighting is a dead one here on the beach below.

Then I headed here, to check in, and in warm sun and little wind, we camped up on the cliff rather than down on the machair with the other vans. I wonder who my summer friends may be, and hope that some of them will last longer than the few days over which our paths, or vans, may coincide.

Bus on cliff

 

Murph was even happier than I for the old engine to stop its shuddering for a few days. He probably didn’t notice or care, as I did, that the old schoolhouse here has been demolished. I thought I’d walk him out to the point to sit and watch dolphins. Not that I’ve ever walked out to the, or any, point and seen any dolphins there, but we walked out to the point and sat and I’d forgotten my fleeting intention but opened my eyes lazily after half an hour and clearly glimpsed a rolling porpoise.

In the last of the heatwave I swam, and then we cycled (too elegant a term for my clunkily-geared-slow-punctured-bulging-tyred-kneebusting-rustbucket) around the higgledy braes, through a sea of buttercups, past Dougie MacLean’s house and round to another sea loch to visit a one-time motorhome neighbour who now has a croft here. Hugs and happiness all round (although Murph was tired in the heat, and it was too far for him).

Morning view

Then we returned to town, slept in car parks, boat yards and castle grounds, bustled around doing paperwork and practicals. A sale, thank goodness (aka Han). Again that Royal-Geographic-Society-type grandeur of the Stornoway Poste Restante address. The postmaster I liked before. The library where I built my website, and the library van driver I held up when my van broke down (‘Oh yes, I thought I recognised you’). The yarn cave and another hug and a helpful blether about a cottage I’m keen on. A delay as I shelter from Hector, and time to meet a kindly family for tea. A ceilidh with them the following night, and home-distilled whiskey till 3am, and hospitality for the weekend.

Bedtime view in Storm Hector

Then trips out of town and back to visit bungalows, businesses and housewrecks for sale all around the island. It’s a gift that one of the most affordable places in the UK happens to be one of my favourites. Although not entirely a coincidence. I persevere through deserted moonscapes devoid of topsoil (should I add to the sum of sheep in the world?) and discover pretty bays with art cafés and people who like folk music and lefty politics, and who don’t go away in the darkest months, phew. So maybe even an unfamiliar corner of these Western Isles could offer me a livelihood and a home.

I guess the next steps will be solicitors and surveyors. And decisions. How terrifying. Can I just weave please and hope the rest works itself out without me?

 

North North North West

Van on Lewis

 

I’m back on the road proper tomorrow! After being holed up on private land over the winter, lately getting the big bus out and about – which always feels daunting after a break – has reminded me of the taste of freedom of movement. Ahem.

Brexit is a subject I haven’t touched on for a while. I never felt black and white about it, but the more I understand about monetary globalisation and the neoliberal drive to transfer power from governments to money centres, the more sympathetic I am to euroskepticism. On balance, I still come down with the Remainers, partly because of the ugliness of so many of the Leave motivations, and partly in optimism that the neoliberal Maastricht Treaty could be superseded to reinvigorate the powers of individual governments. I don’t know. But I do know that I enjoy staying in Brittany, knowing that I would be treated in their hospitals, and that I could easily opt to live in that affordable and pleasant land. (I’m actually lucky enough to be entitled to an Italian passport, so short of an Italexit, I’ve still got options. Thank goodness, because England, for all its wonders, is so damn expensive and crowded and speedy and Wifried and fraught…)

Anyway, so I’ve got my van moving again, AND IT PASSED THE MOT FOR THE THIRD YEAR IN A ROW WITHOUT REPAIRS! This is astonishing in my world, and renews my love for it. It was pushing its luck with water ingress and mould over this wettest of winters, I told it. But when the engine purred into life at the merest tiny key touch after five months of hibernation, my whole body melted with gratitude and relief. There’s not much that’s easy in life, so that was a gift from the gods. And tomorrow I head back to the Hebrides…

I’m looking to settle. I need rhythm, routine, security, predictability. Ha.

I’ve been on a serious househunt in Brittany, where even a person with a tiny business and shaky finances has a chance. (I’ve just done my accounts, and though I haven’t built on last year’s ‘profit’ – I think that’s the word for the <£2/hour ‘wage’ that my business has earnt me –  at least I wasn’t down on last year, which I feared from the slowness of late winter trade.) However, in terms of moving to Brittany, nothing has quite come together yet, so I’m taking my househunt way north for a while.

My head is full of memories from my first chapter of life on the road, three years ago, in the Outer Isles: finding the furthest cove, and going back there again and again; the clutch failing on the furthest road, and limping back to town for refuge in a Chinese takeaway car park; weaving the bogs and the hills and the machairs; meeting weavers and millfolk and travellers and island dwellers and St. Kilda swimmers and families I still keep in touch with; joining in folk clubs and enjoying sessions and gigs; walking and cycling in the castle grounds; filling my water tank from the burns; foraging my lunch from the shore; building my website in Stornoway public library; sourcing the wool that has become my signature and staple; finding the best selection of chocolate I’ve ever seen in Stornoway garage; encountering the native Gaelic speaking Pakistani community…

Lewis shore.jpg

I’ll be there on Sunday, and my head is full of plans and possibilities: a derelict croft cottage for sale; a tourist business for sale (which could incorporate both weaving and folk music); croft land for sale; log cabin building; Harris Tweed weaving; social housing schemes; shared equity schemes; debts, taxes, grants, loans, mortgages; slavery or scrabbling about to go it alone… Some of them are harebrained, but sometimes you can pull off even these. Just watch.

And keep an eye out, too, for the rugs I’ll be increasingly weaving, now that I’m stocked up with linen warp and about to stock up anew on Hebridean land- and seascape inspiration. Be there.

A weaver’s newsletter?

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.

 

Iona rug 2

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.

 

 

Let’s quit the race to the bottom

I’m sitting almost on top of the woodburner. It’s not cold today – though the week began in Narnia. I’m just enjoying the flames that used to be like the baby in my life – tended dawn till dusk, laboured for, loved, and with me 24/7.

 

This morning, Saturday, I walked into town for supplies: forty minutes each way entirely in mature woodland which disgorges mossily green into the town in what the French call a chaos: a dramatically boulderous little white river.

Rushing stream portrait      Murph on snowy boar pool bridge 1

Last night I talked for hours with a dedicated and inspired primitive living craftsman friend back in England. As usual the conversation ranged from our respective love stories and wishes, through weaving and making, low impact livelihood, sustainable economics and how communities organise themselves. Except that most of those are one and the same.

He’s living in – horror of horrors – a successful intentional community. The horror is all mine: he has been a periodic part of that community for some time, and is very happy there. He described the power that is distributed since ownership is shared in both financial and real terms; the rota of work that is full of choice and leaves more days’ free time than not; the minimal financial contributions made by each member; the separate dwellings with an unmarked curtilage of privacy field; the land that is full of ‘resources’ for all, and devoid of fences; the horse- and man-powered machines that minimise fossil fuel use; the separate projects that provide for the whole group; and the businesses that offer a little employment. In all, a smooth-running micro-economy – an open system linking into but softening the blows of the larger vampire economy that most of us feed with more sweat, blood and tears than we can afford.

And all of that makes so much sense that my horror of communal living is slightly reduced.

I’m temporarily in a borrowed cottage in Brittany, partly for the woodburner, but largely for the conservatory, which offers me a bigger working space in which to try out some new kit – a tiny upscale. I bartered a treadle with an Ashford dealer who (compliment of compliments) is also a weaver. My loom sits atop the treadle, which has pedals so that my hands don’t have to operate levers to change the shed, but are free to just handle the shuttle more quickly. The point is to see whether increased productivity increases sales, since sales are usually stimulated by new listings I post in my online shop. I have indeed been a little more productive so far, but financially have had the worst January – which is usually the best month of my year – out of four Januaries since I began trading. Shit.

Is it Brexit? Is it Trump? Is it neoliberalism tightening its grip of austerity? Is it me?

In creep those doubts that always hover: can I survive? Am I making the right product? What do my community want and need? More to the point, what can they afford, with the yokes of debt around their necks? Do I have to compromise by buying cheaper imported wool of unknown provenance and many air miles? Can my prices really get much lower anyway? Do I have to stretch myself and my combustion engine thin by running around after products placed in galleries on a high-hassle sale-or-return basis? Do I have to stress myself out in high-pressure teaching for a wage that is half of that I used to anxiously labour for as the lowliest band of teachers in Higher Education? Do I have to get into more debt to invest a chunk in something that might propel the business – upwards (financially)? Downwards (socio-environmentally)? Must I make more and more beautiful things that only the very richest can afford?

It might just be a blip – these worries are all pretty normal in the early years of business, and especially in the arts, and especially in a conscientious arts business – and especially in a conscientious arts business in a growth economy. Making labour-intensive goods out of ethically sourced materials that were also labour-intensive to produce in the avoidance of socially and environmentally unfriendly shortcuts results in a very expensive product. And in current global economics, these ‘luxury’ or ‘novelty’ goods are only really affordable to a richer community than one’s own. In growth model economics, my peers simply cannot afford my labour costs. And this is a problem.

Environmental and ethical shortcutting for costsaving is the race to the bottom that I am giving my life to resist. But here’s the locking mechanism of growth model economics that makes it so damn hard for any of us to resist its downwards spiral:

The almost-universal, debt-based system of money creation by corporates is described in the Bank of England’s 2014 Quarterly Bulletin. (I explained it in layman’s terms in a previous blog entry.) Regardless of whether the individual or single company is literally in debt, debt money accounts for over 97% of all money in existence. Yes, 97% of all money is debt, which means that 97% of all transactions must cover not just production costs (labour and embodied labour) but additionally, an interest component: all individuals and companies (and even most governments, though they could technically take money creation away from corporate interests and into their own hands) have also to spend extra money to service the borrowed money, i.e. to pay interest on loans.  To cover interest payments, prices will be necessarily higher than wages (in aggregate), with the result that not all goods and services produced can be afforded, because the wages (which pay the producer to consume) won’t stretch to it. This is thus a problem of built-in scarcity and compensatory infinite growth (which is in vain, even in purely financial terms, never mind the destructive social and environmental impacts).

Here’s how it plays out in practice for makers/producers:

In order for our own goods or services not to be the ones left on the shelf, we must engage in a constant battle of noveltising, undercutting, shortcutting and bargaining; we are more or less compelled to compete in ever more vicious ways. If we want or need ordinary folk in our own economies to afford our wares, we have to get things made or done more cheaply, which generally means outsourcing labour to places where working conditions, rights, pay and environmental practices are worse – which means that our local ordinary folk are further deprived of work, which means that they cannot afford our wares, which means that we have to get things made or done yet more cheaply… and so on.

This race to the bottom is a vortex: with all its spinoffs of more and more ridiculous novelty items and worsening production practices, our current monetary system is like an autopilot driving capitalism to its extreme and wrecking life and the planet.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Over in the Green Cloth Collective, where we believe in making things closer to home for greater sustainability, we are discussing alternative economics. As a group we’re still grappling with understanding the problems, and then articulating them, before we can really envisage solutions. But as far as I can see, part of the solution is likely to involve breaking our dependency on money and developing networks and communities in which collaborative credit and other barter-related schemes can grow.

Wouldn’t it be different if you all could afford my labour, and I yours. As attributed to philosopher Alan Watts, saying that trade is difficult because there’s not enough money is like saying that building is difficult because there aren’t enough inches. We all have needs and wants and we can all produce goods and services, even when the money has all been hoovered up. So how can we all get on with our business a long way away from the corporate moneymaker machine hellbent on its race to the bottom?

–:–

 

 

 

The impressive folk at lowimpact.org are addressing these issues too (along with alternative economists around the world). And, honouringly, they have asked me and the Collective to be their advisers on low impact clothing production. My shop is now in their directory too, and proudly sports their logo.

Wave small w lowimpact logo

logo

Inklings of renaissance

Happy New Year! Well, I had the sweetest Christmas, how was yours? Always exhausted at the year’s end, I crashed before getting to the end of the working year, but was able to do a little more, if not round off the batch of seascapes I was in, and stave off a proper bout of lurgy.

In a lovely Devon pub I met a beautiful, high-powered friend who works for a big NGO and we talked about how localism had left her discourse but how that was probably because it was by now a given in her development projects, so that ‘developing’ countries don’t just ‘develop’ in the same fatally flawed way that ours have done. Instead, like a good un, she’s getting anti-neoliberalism and post-neoliberalism on the table at talks with bigwigs from multiple southern hemisphere nations. We egged each other on and made a toast.

And in a lovely Devon café I met a gorgeous, bright woodman who’s looking for a smallholding partner. We had a dimpsey walk by the river, visited a printing press, sung into a mini-amphitheatre, enjoyed coffee and cake and a harp recital and browsing the right-on books for sale. We are also egging each other on and making toasts (and porridge).

However, I did then leave Devon regretfully to come to Brittany (optimistically), where a borrowed cottage affords me the comfort of a woodburner, beautiful extensive forest and a bigger workshop space. This last gives me room to try out my new treadle that I bartered in the Green Cloth Collective, where – compliment of compliments – another weaver and Ashford dealer traded it for a bluebellwood shawl of mine. I’m hoping that higher weaving speeds will increase productivity and thus sales, because sales tend to happen when new listings flurry my shop. This year, despite an excellent November/December thanks to BBC Radio 4, sales/orders have dropped off more over the Christmas/New Year period than they have done in the past. That’s nailbiting since the ferry and cottage cost a little more than staying in my van – which still costs, nonetheless.

I finished the batch of seascapes and found a Breton beach to rival the most stunning Cornish, Hebridean and Connemara ones. The bitter squalls rivalled the most stinging Cornish, Hebridean and Connemara ones too, and the breakers were bigger than the islets in the bay.

But in between  horizontalpours I crabbed around patches of virgin sand, leaning in as far as I could to place a weaving on the clean canvas, occasionally falling on an elbow and spoiling it, then following my tracks back around to move to another virgin patch, one eye on the rising tide, fingers freezing, admiring the view, missing the shot of sunlight, getting back to work, positioning everything perfectly, waiting for another shot of sunlight, running out of camera battery, replacing the camera battery, returning to catch the blowing-away garment, anchoring it with rocks and weed, awaiting another shot of sunlight, readjusting my metre, greeting the sunshot, cursing Murph who was clingy and cold and casting a shadow, getting him out of the way, awaiting another shot of sunlight, and throwing my arms up in the air at another dog hurtling towards us and skidding into my vignette, and crabbing around to another patch of virgin sand… And so on.

Petrol blue alpaca infinity scarf in landscapePetrol blue alpaca infinity scarf ring 2dark royal blue sea cowl round knotsBlue snug knots

Two blue snugs

Vertical seascape cowlDark royal blue snug round close

Largest all-Shetland sea cowl round on beachSea lettuce scarf knot

Grey green sea cowl ruffledGrey green sea waves weed detailSea remnant detail blurGrey Shetland sea scarf flotsamFoggy Atlantic purple grey green cowl blown open

 

I think 2018 is going to bring renaissance. Be at the heart of it. Join the Green Cloth Collective, for a start. It’s wicked.

The Green Cloth Collective: immodest beginnings

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And so, my biggest passion at the moment, the meaning in my craft: the Green Cloth Collective.

Born from disillusionment with our leaders’ inability to instigate anything better than terminal-trajectorial neoliberalism, and a fragment of a vision that I need others to help grow, The Green Cloth Collective emerges as a little-but-already-hundred-and-something-strong guerilla professional network. It is the peer group I longed for, and leftish clothmakers, other craftspeople, businesspeople, activists and economists across continents informally but informedly and animatedly chew over the advantages and opportunities of makership; the problems of race-to-the-bottom economies; and sustainable, communitarian alternatives.

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It’s an amazing feeling when you throw an idea out and someone else instantly enacts it, as with the new group reading list (thanks Laurie), or when there’s friction and somebody else deals with it (thanks ladies), or when you’ve half an idea and someone else runs with it (thanks all active members).

Sensible and harebrained proposals so far include:

Green Cloth Allotments: the Green Cloth community could add its little elbow to help save threatened/encourage the creation of new allotments on which (otherwise landless) growers might plant dye gardens and baste fibre plants, perhaps to be sent to a co-operatively owned Green Cloth Mill for processing

The Green Cloth Book of Postcards: in which we all photograph our craft with a relevant political idea (I’ve just made a handful of my own which are for sale singly or in sets in my shop)

The Green Cloth Calendar: in which we all model the garments we’ve made from scratch for ourselves [Tallula’s idea]. Assuming we’d be scantily clad (since most of of us might only have made scarves or equivalent): as well as having a saucy selling point, it would make an incisive point about our current lack of self-sufficiency in being able to clothe ourselves

The Green Cloth Camp: an informal skillswap gathering, perhaps annual (for all aspects of clothmaking and other domestic/rural/survival skills and crafts)

The Green Cloth Certification: a stamp verifying a business model based on an anarcho-syndicalist (probably) producerist economics for the common good (which might just be a posey way of referring to a green co-operative that shouts its politics from the rooftop)

The Green Cloth Circus: a horsedrawn caravan of wagon-dwelling craftspeople [Sue’s idea] on a campaign trail setting up miniature Green Cloth Fairs (see below), including performance textiles, talks, demos and workshops, on common land, village greens, roundabouts, and at political rallies, festivals and such, highlighting the importance of making and the maker’s role in an economics for the common good

The Green Cloth Charter: a statement of values, vision and aims as they crystallise with the community’s development

Screen Shot 2017-10-04 at 17.26.04

The Green Cloth Code: the Green Cross Code with a speech impediment or two

The Green Cloth Co-operative: a network of nettlers harvesting and processing wild fibre to be sent to the Green Cloth Mill for spinning, and then sent out to a community of (self-employed?) weavers, before being sold as cloth by the mill

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The Green Cloth Council: for if we need a formal steering group, although horizontalist values may not permit anything but an informal cluster of emergent, and possibly transient, ‘elders’

The Green Cloth Currency: on the basis that the current system of (debt based) money creation results in a distorted and extremely unfair market, could the Green Cloth community devise its own monetary or exchange system that would serve as the neutrally useful tool of the commons that currency should be (a Green Cloth Bank or banker(s)/accountant(s) would be paid service charges, not interest, credited with either goods or currency)

The Green Cloth Database: a spreadsheet of makers which would serve, among other things, to facilitate barter [Richard Toogood’s idea]

The Green Cloth Fair: like a gypsy woodfair (and definitely in a field, wilderness or woods) but for cloth people and other makers concerned about an economics for the common good, with trading, eco-conferencing, foodsharing and musicmaking

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The Green Cloth Guerillas: where I’ll go if I get frustrated with conservatism or naysaying in the bigger Green Cloth crowd and have to form an uncompromising splinter group  (no sign of that yet, I’m glad to say)

The Green Cloth Guild: a formalised version of the Green Cloth Collective, offering support, advice and opportunities to members. A union for the 21st century.

The Green Cloth school of thought: [Stretching it a bit here even for me. Though who knows where the fantasy could go and how the micro-movement might grow…] maker-resister- and artisan-activist-devised economics for the common good

The Green Cloth Stall: a PR and campaign stall touring fairs, festivals, rallies, markets and other events

The Kinetic Nettle Knicker Knitting Kolectif: apparently there are simple man-powered Victorian underwear knitting machines, and some form of these kinetic knitting machines can even be powered by a clock and left to work for you. [I think all of us at the recent skillswap camp can take credit/blame for the K5 idea]

 

Phew. One day. Perhaps. Some of it.

Join us.

The Green Cloth Collective

 

Screen Shot 2017-10-04 at 16.48.15

 

Autumn fires burning

So much happens. Even leaving aside the love story, so much happens.

First dye results, woohoo!

After the wonderful September gathering in the woods where mad folk huddled round cauldrons of dye and did public performance textiles beneath the canopy, Green Cloth ideas ravelled into form. A connection with a founder of that gang compelled us to follow up, and four of us got together for a skills swap camp in Devon. Hedgewitch Sue Craig brought passion, a lifetime’s knowledge of vegetable dyeing, and some inspiring containers full of plant matter, dark colour, mineral waters and sour urine. Journeyman Richard Toogood brought a plethora of rural craft and survival skills, a methodical mind, a listening ear, affection and some fleece to spin. I brought my loom, my spinning wheel, some highly spinnable Jacob’s, my wrong-time-of-the-monthness and my kitchen sink. Cloth dreamer Tallula Bentley travels lighter than all of us and brought serenity and gentle play. We all brought love, fervour, laughter and ideas a-plenty, and it was intense. It poured with rain most of the time – and we had to be towed *onto* the field – but the alchemy happened.

 

 

 

 

 

Having been static awhile with access to mains, I’m not sorted on the blown-cigarette-lighter and other fronts, so we were more offgrid even than I usually am all week. However I turned my phone on occasionally because a year after a little contact, Saturday Live producers had got back in touch with me to ask if I wanted to appear on their Radio 4 programme. Didn’t I just! It was a scary, but lovely, experience, which resulted in the highest peak ever in my stats, and more income in one day than in any single month since I started trading. Thanks to the Reverand Richard Coles (for the heartfelt compliment about my weavings, as well as for the sensitive interviewing) and producer Paula McGinley for such an honour.

Just when you’ve had the biggest flurry of interest in your work than you’ve ever had is not the most strategic moment to choose to take a holiday, but after packing up a mountain of parcels I took a holiday. (Hell, I wouldn’t be where I am if I’d thought strategy was the way.)

Murph hates the ferry, and a car alarm went off in the car next to us, which can’t have helped his night. When I let him out, he did the longest pee right by their drivers’ door. Guilty smirk: sorry mate, my dogma just piddled on your carma.

Murph running happy in Breton woods

I headed for the woodburner of a borrowed cottage in Brittany where I planned to hole up for a week. However I took my passion with me and it gave me no rest.

I also took my camera manual (that photography A-level was a long time ago, and this digital SLR is one sophisticated machine); my accordion (getting my fingers and mind around 72 buttons, bellows, keys and chords while songs stacked up and poured forth); and my spinning wheel (cursing and fuming as the thing ran away across the floor, the yarn broke a million times, my treadling leg and bowed back ached, and my whole body rocked).

 

I gathered kilos of ripe chestnuts and spent about ten hours making a lightly-sweet chestnut pie (like a pumpkin pie, but not). Slooooooow living with a frenzied mind. The forest there is especially beautiful in autumn, although even our lovely walks were exercises in photography and French, so they were hard work too. I wish I could go on holiday from myself. (Don’t give me that smug, Western-Zen hippyshit: I. Know.)

One day I walked through the woods to the nearest town as my neighbour had told me they were having a Fest Des of Breton dance, which I love. I didn’t find it, and she was touchingly disappointed afterwards. One evening I visited friends and made music, and another evening I visited a fantastic café-bookshop-gallery-hub-of-resistance in the woods. I only understood half of the talk on a graphic novel which depicted a Chilean activist’s life up until Pinochet’s coup, but it was enough to know that I was in the company of good socialists. Comprehending snatches of some heavyweight philosophers on Radio Culture debating the intersection of equality, social justice, freedom, market and state as I headed for the coast made me feel that yes, France would be a good place to live. I listened to the Italian album that accompanied my mother, father and I in the van we lived in on and off for a few years in the Pyrenees when I was wee, and imagined them as young things – idealistic then, even he. That story is incredibly sad, but I liked the feeling of being a part of mainland Europe, with all its passions and problems and dreams that are the same but different from the passions and problems and dreams of these isles.

Exhausted from sleeplessness too, I extended my stay another week, and decided that this second week I’d work (ha). So then I plugged back into the internet, wrote some responses to a written interview and caught up with customers, colleagues and friends in the Green Cloth Collective, which eased the cabin fever almost as much as it inflamed it.

Then I returned to my Devon park-up and have had to power on at the loom to make orders and winter stock. Here are the last of the autumn leaves.

Rust autumn oak snug 1

Green yellow autumn leaves snug ring 1

Bosky green merino snug red leaf detailBurgundy autumn leaves scarf twist borderOlive rust scarf detailRed rust scarf knot

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

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.