Weaving the year in these isles

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…

Me on Iolaire

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.

Undyed, native breeds from these isles: rug for sale at https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/624817605

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. 

Bladderwrack rugwreck wallhanging for sale at www.etsy.com/uk/listing/629330975

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.

Murph in van w rug close landscape by Eloise Sentito of These Isles

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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

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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.