As I opted out of tenanthood and employeeship and moved my weaving business into a motorhome to take to the road on a shoestring in 2015, a dear family friend, who knows me very well, sent me the postcard pictured below.
Powerful, isn’t it? And tensely ambivalent? On the one hand a proud, wild, free, low impact, low consumption life of resilience on the margins; on the other, guilt and judgment of any comfort, luxury, security, safety or anything else that could be considered a privilege. Underpinned by the universal human need for AND RIGHT to some of all of the above. And fraught by the inevitable tension between the magnetic poles.
Moving one’s weaving workshop around these isles in a motorhome was one thing. Moving one’s weaving workshop in and out of a motorhome around these isles is quite another.
2019 has been a disruptive year. I tried to move to Brittany for the better quality of life it offers on a low income, but Murphy, my amazing familiar, died suddenly the week before. I moved into my planned accommodation regardless, but immediately had to move out again for health reasons. (I’m electrosensitive and the mobile phone mast 3km away took just three days to make me horribly ill because my flat was in direct line of sight.) My motorhome, leaking, mouldering and harbouring images of Murph’s dramatic death and empty bed, was no longer a home.
But the homelessness of the (relatively) privileged is very different from some people’s homelessness: since March I’ve stayed in three beautiful houses, and whilst moving all my worldly possessions and work from pillar to post has taken its toll on my health and productivity, there has been some positive impact on creativity.
Setting up house when I thought I’d be there a while, I made the effort to create a beautiful living and working space: a positive distraction from the greatest bereavement I’d ever suffered – for anyone who’s known the true and steady love of a loyal hound as their only companion will know that few other loves rival it. There was a sorrowfully empty corner by the woodburner where I’d planned for Murph to live, and the proximity of the beautiful woodland that he’d have enjoyed twice daily also taunted me cruelly. But neighbours were kind, friends were warm, the town was inspiring, and I created a lovely home. Rugs I’d woven looked (ahem) stunning on the pale floor complementing traditional Breton furniture unwanted by others and going for a song.
In anticipation of a larger home/workspace, though quite by chance, I’d seized upon a sought-after Dryad rug loom that I planned to install now my micro-business could expand a little. However, I had to change direction. Again. And fast. Again.
Never able to be off work for long (as craftspeople, artspeople and the self-employed well know), I packed what equipment I could into my old estate car and fled the Breton flat for a borrowed cottage. I hoped that just a brief retreat would bring me recovery, and so did not take my larger kit of loom and 100kg yarn stash. Instead I took the spinning wheel given me by my best friend for Christmas some years ago, and after a little input from another friend, hurriedly taught myself to spin.
At the time of buying the Dryad loom in Wales last year, the farmer had also sold me several kilos of fleece that his beautiful late wife had had prepared in Cornwall for the craft business she was shaping to replace her high-stress job. Life had other plans for her, alas. The fleece was beautiful too: lofty, lustrous Leicester Longwool from their own flock of ‘black’ silver sheep. I’d known that this, like the loom, was worth seizing when offered for sale on that serendipitous occasion, for both the quality and the tragic love story behind it.
So in the spring sunshine I foraged in hedgerows and meadows and neighbours’ gardens and in the kitchen and barn for dyestuffs, mordants and modifiers to bring natural colour to my spinning. Murphy was sorely missed every moment and my foraging walks were curtailed by dogless nervousness, but I consoled myself with the thought that foraging was a more perfect thing than ever to be paid to spend my time doing. (Not that my business brought in any money in late spring, the ‘hunger patch’, which lasts for months.)
I competed with the birds for ivy berries (they stripped the bushes while I took care not to) and with the bees for dandelions (I left them the most pollenous heads). I picked ivy leaves wantonly, and gorse flowers laboriously, and japonica flowers hopefully, and birch twigs furtively, and fallen camellias michievously. I was offered frosted azaleas, sent some biscuit tin mordant, and given some copper pipe. I found rusty nails, and, living without electricity because my tolerance had got so low, had an abundance of aluminium nightlight holders which I also used to mordant. (I even had friends to stay who, lightless at night with all electrics off, peed in a potty and donated to the cause. Ammonia is a known alkaliser for modifying natural dye colours, used traditionally in Hebridean tweed and everywhere else, and so I used it. Is that too much information?)
Instead of resting after huge upheaval and physical breakdown, I was as driven as a mad professor working sixteen hours a day seven days a week, leaping out of bed in the mornings to check my dye vats, stirring pots and pans on the stove, making copious notes, photo-documenting on my Instagram, filling endless buckets of water, whirling wet skeins around my head, burning my skin with caustic soda, provoking the occasional explosion, dropping bowls of boiling water between the stove and my dye station outside, and charging out of the house screaming like a fishwife at the birds for plucking fluff out of my drying yarn for their nests (I ended up donating a skein or two to their cause).
The outcome was five kilos of low impact art yarn, in (rare and exciting and not always fugitive) blues, mauves, pinks, greys, browns, rusts, yellows and greens. Some were dip dyed, and these are the most exciting to ply, knit or weave, as the end result is unpredictable and variegated across the finished project. Once plied, I felt that I’d taken the fleece to the most beautiful state that I could, and that the final step should be somebody else’s to take. And so I offer this range for sale especially for knitters.
I then had to vacate this lovely cottage, and, the flat investigated for electro-magnetic fields and deemed a write-off for me, moved to an equally lovely farmhouse elsewhere, thanks to some dear friends. (My middle class, privileged homelessness again: I used to work in Higher Education with her; he got me into these stalwart old Mercs.) This was a huge, woodfired, haunted, isolated, gingerbread house in unfamiliar, agricultural countryside. I felt very alone, especially when my car broke down, passers-by declined to jump start me and I thought I’d have to leave it in a layby until… what? But then friendlier neighbours familiar with old cars and undaunted by the two-minute and very simple manouevre helped out, deduced who I was, and then kept an unintrusive eye on me thereafter. (I’ve bought more bottles of wine as thanks for kindly neighbours and strangers than I’ve drunk myself.)
I then spent a very quiet, meditative period, unwell at times but largely in a gentle weaving rhythm, producing several grand’s worth of stock, going to bed with the sundown and watching the moon rise over the red tin roof of the barn through my open bedroom window at night.
Of course you’re never alone. During that peaceful time I had the most magical companionship: two kestrels were raising two young in the eaves of the gingerbread house. It was my fortune to be there at fledging time, and I watched the young, one male, one female, tumble and fall and stretch and jump and then fly. I witnessed them stooping submissively as they were dive-bombed by the swallows nesting in the barn, and hopping and squeaking as they were stalked by the cat, whose cover of undergrowth I cleared. Hopefully I was a help, and at close quarters they swivelled their heads and set their huge eyes upon me even in my bedroom. One evening I slurped up spaghetti on the patio while just ten yards away beneath the oak they slurped up entrails on the woodpile. Daily at dawn I saw their first landing and watched them assess the new day as they woke me with the sound of their claws on the red tin roof of the barn through my open bedroom window in the morning.
I was quiet. I read books about islands and their non-capitalist communities. I wove snugs and shawls as winter stock, and weaving a little of my ownspun Leicester Longwool was joyous, but never more joyous than weaving my ownspun Leicester Longwool dyed in kestrel colours.
So that was the spring and summer. Autumn brings autumn colours and selling season, and more househunting, and political activism. I’m in a warm, dry room in a different, lovely house in Devon, my semi-derelict van outside with the loom set up on a treadle and my workbenches still packed in my car and a question mark over my health and my next chapter. I was not in a position to catch the seasonal wave for the winter frenzy this year, but unless I find another way to stay afloat, I guess I’ll carry on weaving these isles nonetheless.
I’d like to write some news from these actual isles, but as Britons stage bloody battles that obscure the war for and against capitalism while that system burns the planet, I can never think where to start. Plus I’ve been stuck on survive.
So just a little news from These Isles mobile weavery, which is seeking to settle, but which keeps coming back to a similar crossroads, and which will likely still be van-based this winter:
After a rest in Devon, coming online this month is the complete range of the lofty Leicester Longwool I sourced from a farmer in Wales and which I’ve spun and plantdyed. Winter weavings I’ve been making will also be listed over the next weeks and months, so you may be warmed by earthen snugs, scarves and shawls if the right one emerges for you.
Meantime a lovely American RVer has published this interview with me that I’d like to share with you, and which inspires fantasies of farmsteading and fall colours and Thanksgiving and endless open roads…
I recently enjoyed, and highly reccommend for its soothing simplicity and reassuring grit, Jenna Woginrich‘s book, ‘One Woman Farm’. If it weren’t for Trumpism, maybe I’d try an American dream! Though the Celtic corners have held out better against Anglo-Saxon economics. Perhaps there are proper Celtic corners in the States, and an appetite for post-capitalist solutions? Go Bernie Sanders and AOC!
Oh, Jeromy Corbyn! (Caroline Lucas has been a fireball in the Commons lately too.)
And thanks to all those many others who resist also.
Weaving winter stock, I just spent a very quiet month in a borrowed farmhouse, alone with a family of kestrels. The babies, a male and a female, are just learning to fly now as I depart. I spotted the first fledgling last week crouched in the bushy mint beneath the nest, nervously hidden. Fallen? Jumped? Pushed?
How many of my blog entries begin ‘it’s been a while, and much has happened’?
Absorbed in the scarily high-stakes parliamentary chess game of Brexit… Will Northern Ireland achieve reunification by default? Does England need her own independence, instead of co-dependently dominating her neighbours? Is Scotland the only healthy corner of the UK? Will we all end up prey to big bully American corporate interests? Is it a choice between those and the likes of pharmaceutical Bayer as our overlords?!
Brexit is a terrifying, but also thrilling, three-way fork in the road between centrist capitalism (business as usual in the EU), Tory capitalism (extreme Thatcherist business in the WTO) and the remotest chance of the beginnings of a mutualist utopia (relatively speaking) led by Corbyn and McDonnell in partnership with the Greens, the nationalist parties and the British people, all informed and energised by the wonderful, furious, counter culture and the equally wonderful, furious European left who’ve actually tasted successful socialism and municipalism in living memory. Maybe we (the Eurpoean left), can supersede the EU’s neoliberal treaties and help thoroughly green the whole bloc – there is certainly some appetite for that in France, and I should imagine especially in socialist Portugal, progressive Catalonia, suffering Greece, mutualist Sardinia…
And if we don’t turn the growth-dependent capitalist ship around, and fast, will climate change leave all or most of us screwed – us and the thousands of species we are taking down with us? Chances are.
High damn stakes indeed.
I’m currently convalescing in a pretty borrowed cottage in Brittany (temporary accommodation has its upsides). Nearby is the only village in France to have held out against Nazi occupation. We’re in the middle of a vast forest. Next door is a café-librairie, centre of high culture and hub of resistance extroardinaire. Brittany has always known resistance, and I’m told that the protest vandalism of the gillets jaunes elsewhere in France will never harm a crêperie, out of respect.
The weavery bus in a Devon valley saw winter trade that was busy busy, thank god – and thank you to my customers; after a business-threateningly slow 2018, the winter compensated and brought my figures to something resembling an actual wage. My March monthly income fell back to zero. This is not entirely surprising, but the panic re-emerges nonetheless, as a constant threat underlying everything, like Brexit, and like climate breakdown.
And then suddenly, unexpectedly, prematurely, on a night when I’m feeling sorry for myself and counting the biggest blessing in my life that is Murphy, Murphy gets a twisted gut, somersaults out of the van vomiting with a heart attack, and dies.
Here he is, from the nervy, ratty, rescue youngster I nearly overlooked, to the crown prince, drawer of crowds, maker of friends and love of my life that I thought I didn’t coo too much about on social media but which your wonderful, overwhelming condolences confirm that I must have done at least a little. Ouch.
I’m also nursing another heartbreak – one that paled briefly into insignificance on Murph’s death, but one which has taken a great deal of processing nonetheless, both before and since: someone I perceived as steady and a friend for life, and then fell in love with, but whose parting poetry proved hollow as he disappeared for good. A very Irish story (in case you were reading between the lines of my blog back then).
I’m also facing, after about seven years, that I have a serious health issue: ever-increasing electro-sensitivity. Like any allergy or intolerance, it sets in when you’re down, and now has me unplugging appliances, disconnecting batteries, flipping trip switches, avoiding devices and having to stay in the wilds to avoid being a nervous, sleepless, nauseous wreck. And this at a time when I thought I might have had enough isolation in the wilds and want to rejoin ‘civilisation’ and community.
It has serious implications for both social and working life: mobile internet access is a toxin to which I’m having to limit my exposure to about 10 seconds a day – and still pay for for an hour or so, if not a whole night. (An actual, physical marketplace would be every bit as bad due to everybody else’s mobile phones, cell towers and neighbours’ Wifi.) And so, when I’ve managed to make business and lifestyle so apparently miraculously synergistic so far, for want of a landline and a Murphy, I may have to make some very big changes.
Electro-sensitivity is a very 21st century problem, as yet little known, under-researched and poorly understood, though it apparently affects some 25% of us, in different ways, and military research has long recognised the impact of high frequency radiation on health. If you have persistent unexplained symptoms like non-specific anxiety, insomnia, headaches, nausea, tinnitus, nosebleeds, then SWITCH EVERYTHING OFF! (In fact, please switch everything off in between use always and anyway, for everyone’s sake!) I recommend the work of British radiographer Dr Erica Mallory Blythe (helpful videos on Youtube); TED talker and Silicon Valley ‘refugee’ engineer Jeromy Johnson; and the Stop Linky anti-smartmetre brigade in France, who have put me in touch with knowledgeable doctors, geobiologists and eco-electricians. (Thank goodness, again, for the French spirit of resistance, for in this, as in many things, they are more advanced than the British.) Most people will suggest a tinfoil hat, but increasing numbers do actually understand and can help. You can’t imagine my relief to hear that Brussels has just become the first city to refuse 5G. For the sake of the electro-sensitive among us (including birds and probably most other wildlife), please let’s halt the indiscriminate march of radiowave technology that may be mass suicide by sterilisation! (And yes, maybe our species is actually killing itself off for the sake of our host and our fellow guests on this planet.)
Anyway, back to the wool (always a relief): meantime I’m treating this hideaway as a product development period. I’m honing my spinning skills and experimenting with plant dyes and will shortly have a range of subtle coloured earthen yarns to offer for your own creativity to flourish. Unless and until I work out a better way to trade, they’ll be in my Etsy shop as usual.
As a taster, here are some adventures in ivy, dandelion, gorse, alder, birch, chestnut, lemon, avocado, pomegranate, japonica and camellia…
Above, my own-spun Leicester long wool, and below, Shetland, Blue Faced Leicester, Alpaca and lambswool. All on my shop ‘shelves’ soon.
Nine days left in the These Isles January sale and about nine wintry weavings remaining too (though there are new ones fresh off the loom, to be listed soon, so you don’t have to go cold if you miss the sale items!) https://etsy.me/2UbxJXU
I’m pondering a blog post on Britain and Ireland (especially), which may be entitled ‘These disputed isles’… the tales and politics tangle and brew such that I have difficulty keeping up…
I’ve been away from my blog for some months, weaving and publicising (and househunting) and writing for other people’s platforms and too fired up with ideas to keep up with them all here. I apologise! Do please follow on my other platforms: Instagram for daily images of works in progress and nuggets of ideas; Facebook, the central hub, with weekly musings, pictures and links to products; Pinterest for occasional display boards; lowimpact.org and noserialnumber.org for political and environmental articulations of craft economics; and of course the These Isles shop where the weavings themselves are listed for sale as I make them.
So this final entry of 2018 will be a round up of the year – the ideas, the travels, the tensions, the weaves…
In a tiny boat in a beautiful bay of islands in the Outer Hebrides in summer I went fishing with some dear friends who go out specifically to catch their week’s supply of protein. I caught and killed my own fish for the first time, and I experienced that feeling for which henkeepers so loathe foxes: after some fruitless trips, some hours of disappointment, and some hours of seasickness and cold, on finding a shoal of very large mackerel, the brutal, maniacal drive to catch and kill as many as possible at one go. The predator making hay while the sun shines. And, though I like to support what I consider good food production (tiny scale, mixed, organic farming and wild hunting and gathering), the experience of this startlingly feral drive pushes me a little back towards vegetarianism – or should it be veganism, for the absolute stand that the planet perhaps needs a critical mass of us to take now in order to avoid or mitigate climate breakdown?
I’ve been reading Monbiot a lot, and I’ve been homehunting in sheepwrecked landscapes historically cleared, often violently, of people so as to make way for the wool on which we built our empire and on which my livelihood now depends. Ouch. Tiny, scattered, determined, island community members cling to each other wilfully and creatively – crofters, artists and fisherfolk in remote, difficult, treeless terrain. In the Hebrides there is less counter culture, but perhaps less need for it, as these people are still well aware of the essential importance of each other, of land, and of craft. However, holiday home-owning in the Outer Isles has contributed to the largest price spike anywhere in the UK in the last two years, and all that would be vaguely within my reach is in too poor a state for my financiers to consider. Also, after the Caribbean weather vanishes in July and galesome, wet, autumn sets in, I realise for the first time in my life that I do not want to live alone far from the nearest town, especially where the landscape is so inhospitable now to all but grazers, and the winter days so short.
This is very much a revelation: I was brought up on a shoestring but renting in beautiful places was always prioritised, was what I knew and loved and what I always sought for myself too, even in solitude, and always envisaged for myself forever. But renting feels exploitative to me, and no longer a happy housing solution. And buying rurally is unaffordable for most of us. And then this change of heart: Stornoway’s welcome, with its arts centre, lively pubs, and extensive woodlands by the harbour and town centre, altered my path quite radically. I’ve come to want what most people want: the daily dog walks in the trees, with the shops, market, music and social life also within walking distance.
Sadness and anger for centuries of wealth-concentrating policy that has made the English countryside (especially) largely inaccessible to the many, and pretty lonely to the few, with communities significantly eroded. The Land Workers’ Alliance, Simon Fairlie et al continue to fight for the rights of young, alternative farmers to make their sustainable projects feasible by being able to live on the land they work. So many of them are still thwarted even in their agricultural pursuits by conservative planning laws, and buying land in my native England would certainly not solve my own housing problem. (Although, amazingly, the more philanthropic Scottish government and Crofting Commission actually pay people to take on land and build, personally I do not feel equipped to face this alone. The One Planet Development project in Wales is even more farsighted – truly radical and visionary – for those of you with more strength and resources than I.)
So, a lover of space, wilderness, silence, dark skies and rewilding, my views shift: whereas my first trip to Ireland saw me dismayed at the scatter of bungalows throughout much of the countryside and the lack of wild between them, the socialist in me is glad now that more people have access to land and rural life. For disconnect with land is surely the root of all of society’s ills…
I’m currently reading Paul Mason on postcapitalism, radically foreign yet resonant: is the urbanite so disenfranchised from the land that land will soon no longer be one of the three pillars of economics (along with labour and capital)? He seems to be positing that these three may be largely outcompeted by a knowledge economy via info-tech, and that these successors are more equally distributable among all the networked individuals of the world, the order of which he sees as undergoing an overarching battle between complex network and oppressive hierarchy. Thus he heralds the emergence of non-enforced communism as originally envisaged by Marx, and I am forced to question whether my own dreams of land ownership root nomadic me, of all people, in an old, oppressive order.
But how to mend the psycho-social and cultural disconnect compounded by capitalist economics and surely not healed by this new route yet further divergent from land? Infrastuctural collapse brought on by economic crash and climate breakdown will surely throw survivors back into whatever remains of fields and woods. Personally, professionally and politically I gravitate towards the lowest tech, land-based survivalism, but ideologically I cannot ignore the democratising and egalitarian potential of the high-tech – an incoming wave I’ve welcomed, jubilant, in both education and politics, to name just two examples, as the complex chaos of social media glistens its possibility for overthrowing the archaic, hierarchical paradigms.
Mason suggests that a gift-like economy (though so far he uses other terms) of infinitely and freely replicable info-goods enabled by networked media will elude profiteering and supercede the markets. As he explains it, it sounds like another route away from the monopolising feudalism of debt-money. I wonder how the knowledge producers will put bread on their tables (and most people in the arts already know how that feels) – but I’m sure that subsequent chapters will examine this satisfactorily. (It’s great writing, and great politics; do follow him.)
Back to my own profession: a London designer of African origin has just approached me for some chunky, earthen cloth handwoven in native Celtic wool for his menswear apparel. We are both excited at this opportunity to explicitly connect fashion to land via craft, and the diverse ecology of our possible collaboration.
So those are the ideas, and here are the weavings through the year.
January. I started the year in Devon, and wove some rustic cloth à propos of the silver-grey bark of wintry trees in the woodlands where I walked Murph. Some of the wool was my favourite Scottish island tweed that lent subtle but startling multicolour to the natural and/or undyed greys and rabbits. The year has turned and two of these three scarves have sold. The softest, plainest, wintriest one remains, gentled by a little Alpaca.
February. Van life means you have to keep moving whether you want to or not, since it is easy to outstay your welcome, even where there is one. I went to Brittany and spent time with both mor and koat – sea and forest. Here is a soft, wintry snug pictured on a boulder in woodlands of the Armorique National Park, Finistère.
March. Still in Brittany, I resumed the seascape weavings. Here are some pictured on huge expansive beaches, where chilly, windfraught photoshoots often required pinning weavings to the sand and styling the practical improvisation into a vignette. I notice how the Atlantic coast, jewelled with the odd white beach all down, changes gradually from the Western Isles of Scotland, with its rocky moor and bog and mountains on gneiss; the Inner Hebrides, Argyll and Bute, gentler and prettier, with a little dogged ancient oak forest even on the Western seabord; Wales with its moorlandy cliffs like the granite tumbles of North Devon and North Cornwall; South West Cornwall, more wooded, with softer moorlandy headlands and the beginnings of the rose granite; Brittany with these moorlandy headlands, rose granite and the beginnings of the mediterranean pines that prevail down the French Atlantic and all the way to Galicia. I haven’t seen the Portuguese coast, and I wonder…
April. The sun came out hot in Brittany, but I returned to Devon. Thinking about how best to use the most local, least processed wool, I began weaving rugs. The most local, least processed (undyed) wool wove itself into the most successful of all those made so far. Telling me something, perhaps.
May. I began to gather together for a trip back to my first landing place after going on the road: the Isle of Lewis. They were having a heatwave. Drought made the bog less colourful – I particularly missed the red sphagnum moss – but the sea more inviting. Weaving the colours into rugs was heady, though the technicalities proved frustrating.
June. When the weather broke in the Outer Hebrides, storms brought in heaps of orangey rusty red, purple and black bladderwrack; rocks black with lichen reflected steel and white skies. This little slipway was all but reclaimed – the beatuful romance of unobstrusive workmanship that enhances a wildy landscape. The colours for this rug absorbed me totally, and are a combination that stays with me still.
July. In the height of summer on the Isle of Lewis, the rare meadows behind the sand dunes of the whitest sands burst into bloom. The acid soils are fertilised by windblown lime to create the green, cerise, yellow, blue, purple and white machair effect unique to such parts of Scotland and Ireland. I camped in them, walked in them and wove in them to my heart’s delight.
August. Horizontal rains ripped the Outer Isles and drove through every crack not only in my old van but also in my friends’ very new van. I had remembered that the Hebridean dampness was less bothersome than the Devon dampness I was brought up with, because in the islands, in between downpours, galesome winds at least blow in through the cracks and help dry things out. This summer though, the rain barely stopped and the wind just forced the water in. I kept my recent memory alive though of rusty red weed, rusty red sails, rusty iron rings and the skies reflecting their deep blue into the Atlantic, and wove one of my best shawls to date. I recently packed it up to send to Oregon, where I’ve heard that their rugged coast may be as characterful – and possibly a little bit as Celtic – as ours.
September. Still in the Outer Hebrides but after eight months of unusually slow trade and a few months of dead-worried publicity drive, a couple of magazine features came together. One, by Carol Ann Strange, will depict my travelling craft life, to come out in Coast magazine I’m-not-sure-when. The other, by Kate Stuart in No Serial Number magazine this autumn, draws the threads of the poetry and the politics together in an invitation to the Green Cloth Collective – a group for environmentalist craftspeople who see their makership as an act of resistance.
October. I had hoped to find suitable bricks and mortar in Stornoway by winter. However, four months’ relentless searching revealed only wrecks within my reach. But that port town where my heart sings; that little harbour where the Drascombe is moored; and that little slipway where I walked Murph every day remained alive in my mind, and the first of my winter smalls were this harbour snug, harbour scarf and harbour cowls. (The scarf sold straight away, but the others are still in my shop as I type – don’t delay!)
November. Back in Devon again, I watch the wooded hillside opposite go through its zenith and then fall wintry. There are regal oaks, scrubby gorse and some other native planted saplings as a piece of this prime but tiring agricultural land is being allowed deliberately to rewild. Most noticeable are the swathes of silver birch with their platinum trunks and red-purple brush. Some of my favourite spots in the Highlands, islands and Ireland are characterised by birch.
December. Still static in Devon, flat out trying to make my most seasonal of crafts earn me a year’s income in what may, in terms of sales, only be a three month year. (I’ve been pleasantly surprised before at the length of my season, but this year has been different, and very stressful due to slow trade Jan-Aug.)
I add some new postcards to a large reprint, and get some, ahem, very swanky cards printed on recycled cotton. I squeeze out a few more weavings, though decide to concentrate on selling more than making in the peak of this peak season. I invest in some Facebook advertising (corporate, boo!) which increases my traffic by orders of magnitude, and have a consultation with a nice Dub at Facebook Ireland’s HQ about targeting my advertising. I’m getting slick, now, me #requisiteYorkshireaccent.
I also revamp my shop with a new, high speed photographic style: I figure that you may wish to see my weavings worn in order to imagine what they might look like on you, and not just what they look like in the landscape!
And so we wish you a Merry Christmas, Murphy and I, and thank you for your support, and look forward to ‘seeing’ you in the New Year.
‘Why are you making rugs?’ says my crofting host as I embark on rug no. 6 after a number of failures and less-than-successes. (I’ve recently written about the trickery of craft and market on No Serial Number magazine’s blog – keep an eye on my ‘Writings’ webpage and on NSN for more, too.)
I’m currently making rugs partly because I want to, need a change, enjoy the new freedom of working outside the parametres of clothing design (softness; drape; wearable colours). It’s partly because the sustainable native wools I love lend themselves to more robust weavings. It’s partly seasonal product development: because I need something that sells in the warmer months, which wearable woollens don’t so much. It’s partly because I’m thinking about home-making in a house, hopefully this winter, for some cosiness, security and, hell, some safety, actually. And it’s partly because, though I accept defeat more readily these days, I’m so near to successful rugmaking that after months’ of confidence-knocking frustration, I feel to push on through.
And so I embark on rug no. 6. I’ve got a new unbleached cotton/linen blend – it’s a pain to change warp material again, since every thread behaves differently, but I haven’t yet found out what works, and so haven’t been able to nail a constant source of warp yarn.
I generally love warp-dominant designs, so that winding the warp on the frame is about the most artistic step of the process – the bit where the seascape, or whatever it is, first emerges. However, this plain warp is easy and quick to wind (since for once I wind just one weaving’s worth at a time, to reduce frustration should things go wrong). I take special precautions and borrow some (full) tin cans to weight the warp evenly as I wind it onto the loom.
I haven’t rethreaded the heddles for months, and there are some corrections and compensations that, I finally realise, are affecting tensioning. I compensate for this in the weaving. (What’s the difference between a skilled craftsman and a bodger?) It’s still not technically perfect, but it works, is robust, flat, and I like the character.
The Hebrides are famous for their machairs: in this peaty, treeless, topsoilless, rocky moonscape, a rainbow of wildflowers emerges like the Milky Way in summer. Out here on the west coast, the dark, iron-rich soil behind the sand dunes is sprinkled constantly with sand by the Atlantic gales. The sand, being crushed shells, is lime, and so alkalises the otherwise acid soil, creating the perfect bed for ragged robin, huge red clover, dwarf harebells, golden rod, eyebright, self-heal, louse wort, ragwort, wild thyme, buttercup, hawkbit, silverweed, plantain, meadoseeet, umbellifers, trefoils, vetches and more others than I can name. The Caribbean weather departed not long after I arrived here in June, but these eruptions of colour are all the merrier against gunmetal seas and skies. I was strategic, and though the machairs have gone to seed now, for once I took photos in time, and before, rather than after, making the weaving.
So here it is, the first machair rug: https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/637779291/machair-wool-floor-rug-handwoven-in
I’m also here for the folk music, and stay in Stornoway for five days over the HebCelt festival. I haven’t actually permitted myself time off, and have a to-do list and no arena ticket, but in between using the laundry, the library and the arts centre Wifi, I enjoy fringe events such as Gaelic singing workshops, young-peopled ceilidhs and music-rocked pubs. I make new friends (travelling and local) and bump into old ones who put me on the guestlist for the arena. However Mercury is retrograde, wires are crossed, and I’m disappointed on the gate, left to wander in the warm, wet castle woods that rave with the sound of some superb trancy folk acts that I can’t attend. I go lonely to one of the few pubs I’m comfortable in as a woman alone and play their piano for an hour, staring out at the grey-harbour rain, and feel better – or at least lonely in the way that proper musicians probably feel, which is better than ordinary mortal loneliness. Maybe if householding is an unrealistic dream I’ll go for studying folk music instead, and at least then be insecure doing the thing that I *really* love.
But then things liven up again on the weaving front: first I’m interviewed for a magazine article – a sensitive and passionate piece on me, maker politics and global economics by Kate Stuart will appear in the October print edition of No Serial Number magazine. a photo of my tools is featured in an ad on American TV; a residency opportunity opens up, filming for the BBC; I go on a promotion blitz (get in touch if you want to help in exchange for some weaving credit); I see inspiration for weavings all around; I’m fired up with ideas for the Green Cloth Collective; I pitch a number of articles about landscape medicine and craft economics… So much to do. I’ll tell you next time what transpires.
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.
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.
‘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.
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).
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.
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?