Tag Archives: craft

Listening to the cloth

I’m an animist. I will talk to anything. Perhaps more crucially, I will listen to anything/anyone. I get really excited about anything that turns out to be a conversation.

So, for some time now I’ve been working on a jacket for Tom.  I think it will be the first of many. I’m using dead material reclaimed from jeans that are too worn out for other use.  The available pieces of fabric for the project were determined by the state of the jeans and whose jeans they were – which had size implications. I started by removing and squaring off the biggest pieces of fabric I could get, and these went into the shoulder region. Smaller pieces were deployed further out.

Making the jacket was a sort of conversation between the available material and the desired shape, and that was interesting. I found that techniques I’d previously used when making blankets were really useful here. Patchworking with pieces of varying sizes can take a bit of figuring out.

It was when I started the embroidery that things got interesting. The embroidery has a massive practical function in that it strengthens and reinforces the fabric.  So, the most intense embroidery clearly had to centre on the weakest areas of patchwork. From then on, the decorative aspect of the process became a conversation with the cloth. An aesthetic emerges from all of this that is entirely practical, and has a logic built not on design, but on need. It’s been fascinating to do.

Jacket embroidery is a conversation between the needle and the denim, the patches and the wool. It is a conversation between what the fabric fragments used to be and what I want them to become. They need to be strong for future use, so the imagined future of the garment has to be part of the conversation. Which has led me to thinking about where this garment will go and what will be asked of it, and who else I might be making jackets for.

What I am making is a craft piece. Looking at it, in progress, I’m really aware of how the shapes I’m using for embroidery relate to recent thinking I’ve done about rock art and stone carving. I’m aware of how what I’m making relates to the Japanese traditions I’ve been looking at. There’s also an influence of the kinds of abstract art I enjoy, because there are aesthetic decisions to make alongside the practical ones, and everything that is in my relationship with visual arts informs what I’m doing in this process. But, as a practical piece made to be worn, it will be understood as craft.

I’ll just haul my oft-used soap box out for a moment and mention that the distinction between art and craft is political, and loaded with issues around class, race, poverty, utility and who has the power to dictate what people’s creations are and mean.

Why I’m not doing Sashiko

Following on from my previous post about boro –  https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2020/06/26/craft-culture-and-boro/

Sashiko is a Japanese embroidery tradition, and it is gorgeous and well worth looking up. As far as I can make out, the whole thing is based on a fairly simple running stitch so it’s quite accessible and easy to learn the basics. It does however use specific kit, a needle and  a totally different kind of thimble from the ones I am used to.  These are easy to find, but I have concerns about how my easily-hurt hands would respond, so that’s one reason I’ve not dug in. The other is that I’m doing non-traditional sewing inspired by boro and using fabric far heavier than you’re supposed to use for sashiko, so, it’s not going to work for me.

When I first became interested in these traditions, I found a lot of western people writing about them. I had to dig a bit to find Japanese sources.  Appropriation is something I’ve thought a lot about from a Pagan perspective and it is just as relevant for craft as for Craft. I’m greatly in favour of learning from other cultures, practices and traditions, but how you do that clearly matters.

One of the things I learned from my adventures with sashiko is this – if you learn the surface of a thing you may get a bunch of rules that teach you how to make something that looks like something. If you dig in to learn about the history, use, purpose and context of a thing you can end up with a totally different approach.

So, while I’m not following the available rules about exactly how to do this kind of sewing, I’m trying to understand how the embroidery relates to the cloth, what it is for, what it does, and where that knowledge leads.  As a consequence I’ve learned a lot of things that I can take back to my own crafting. I also think this stands really well as a metaphor for what we might do with other people’s spiritual traditions. It’s worth thinking about how much time a person invests and where they learn from before they feel entitled to present as an expert  on a culture they are not part of.

I’m happy to talk about what I’ve learned, and what my journey has been, but I don’t think it would be even slightly appropriate at this point for me to claim I am making boro, doing sashiko or able to tell anyone else how to do those things.

But if you’re curious, here is a man whose family work with these traditions, and who has a great deal of insight to share… https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCraGC2n7qN31FlQSvXYI0JA


Resolution time!

I like the end of year opportunity to check in with my previous year’s resolutions, see how I did and set some intentions about how I wanted to move forward. So, this time last year my goals were as follows:

Improve my stamina so that 2 hours of fun stuff (walking, dancing) does not challenge me at all.

Remove the mute button, and be as I am with more people more of the time.


Write songs. Even if I only sing them twice in public, before I go off them, I want to do more of this.

Cause more fun stuff to happen.

Pick up some new skills (maybe craft skills, I don’t know, we’ll see what comes along).

How did I do? I can’t count on being active for two hours, but the likelihood of being able to be more active without taking a pasting has greatly improved, so good enough, and more of that in the future.

I don’t know that I’ve got very far with removing the mute button, although I’ve successfully cut down on the time I spend with people I feel obliged to mute around. So that moves things the right way.

Ceilidh – total fail. That’s not my fault, the local dances keep happening on nights when I’m already doing something else!

Write songs – win. I’ve written a couple of songs I really like this year. I feel more confident in my song writing.

Cause more fun stuff to happen. Win. And also, I’m spending time with people who cause fun stuff to happen so it isn’t all coming from me.

Pick up some new skills – well, I’m learning things about making small films and I went to a couple of writing workshops, so, good enough there. I also learned a fair bit about ecolinguistics.

What’s next?

High quality sloth – not just down time, but really good quality downtime with better sleep, better soul nurturing stuff, more happy stuff, more good. Not being so tired that I can’t have good down time.

More local events. Because travelling to do events is a lot of work and the trains are silly.

Making more time for my creativity, more time for creative collaborations and more time for spaces where I can happily share creative stuff in an un-pressured sort of way.

Being much more guarded about my time, energy and resources and being willing to be more selfish about what I need for me, and more willing to say no to people. Saving my energy so that I get more opportunities to say yes to good things that I actually want.

Jack of all trades

Yesterday’s post featured a rag rug, with a design drawn by my other half. I know three ways to make rag rugs. There are a great many other crafts I can do a bit, numerous musical instruments I can play passably, and a vast array of other things in which I have dabbled over the years. I like to dabble, I get excited learning new things, and I get bored if I spend too long doing all the same things. However, while I’m pro dabbling and experimenting, it’s not without hazards.

If all you end up doing is learning new stuff, you can find you don’t develop anything properly, never get beyond beginner stage, never learning to push and never doing anything for long enough to have it bear fruit. It can be a way of avoiding dealing with happens when you commit. As a dabbler, you may never finish anything, never really achieve anything but there’s always a new exciting project to wave at people. All the attention, none of the exposure of making something people can experience for themselves, and maybe judge.

Without a doubt, the best creative work comes from a mix of inspiration and dedication. It means building a skill set so that when you have a fire in your head, you can make best use of it. It takes a long time to become truly good at something – the general estimate seems to be about ten thousand hours. The more time a person spends dabbling, the less scope there is to get to that point with any given skill. But on the up side, you can become an expert in learning how to quickly learn things, and there are plenty of times in life when being a Jack of all trades is more useful than being the master of one.

I find that when I dabble, I deepen my appreciation for people who do the things well. When I know more, I am better equipped to enjoy and appreciate. I think this is because I’m pretty good at staying realistic about my own skills and insights. If you do a single course, or a brief session and you think you are then an expert, that can have some seriously distorting effects on how you see other people’s work.

Dabbling enriches my understanding of the world, and anything that teaches me feeds back into my writing. It keeps me fresh, and interested, and hauls me out of ruts and gloom. If something isn’t working for me I will eventually stop banging my head against it and pick up something else for a while. Dabbling is play, and fun and often what I do with my leisure time. I like making things, I like exploring.

As a creator I’m increasingly interested in what happens when disciplines collide. Not just putting words and images together, as with the graphic novel work, but putting music and images together, exploring stories through craft, how I can use my body more in spoken word performance… I love stories made out of fragments and ephemera, and that means I need to learn how to make more of the pieces.

So, I advocate dabbling, exploring, and playing. Know that’s what you’re doing, don’t mistake it for having the same depth and breadth of knowledge as someone has when they’ve worked on a skill for many years. Don’t use it as a substitute for seeing a project to conclusion. Don’t require yourself to achieve at the same standard as an expert when you’re only playing with something. Don’t lose sight of your personal goals, vision etc in the muddle of trying to learn to do ten thousand things. Sometimes a new skill is just a shiny distraction from the things you need to be doing. Pausing regularly to take stock helps make it all work.

Crafting for Druids

When a person starts out along the Druid path, there are so many things they might potentially learn that it can all be a bit overwhelming. I don’t have (as yet) an easy route map for all of this. For those signed up to a teaching order, there’s at least a framework (The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, The British Druid Order and ADF all offer distance learning support and there are probably others). Many would-be Druids however have to go it alone.

When looking for ancient spiritual wisdom, many of us default to books. The ancient Druids didn’t write anything down, all we have is modern thinking. Arguably, there is no spiritual authority in anything any modern Druid writes. I think this is excellent because it puts the onus on each of us to find out own truth.

So, why crafting for Druids? Having traditional skills connects us in really direct ways to the lives of our ancestors. Doing the things they did will teach us about their lives and brings them closer. Traditional skills also bring a person in relationship with the living world. To make a fire, to grow vegetables, weave a basket or throw a pot you have to deal directly with real things. Too many of us have working lives that put us indoors, looking at the world through a screen and typing (I’m stuck with this too). Traditional skills ground and rebalance us. They make us a part of the living world.

Learn to do something – anything – from scratch. We’re constantly bombarded with the idea that we need labour saving, time saving for-sale interventions. There’s a radical aspect to ignoring that. Doing things from scratch gives you something unique and personal. It forms a connection between you and what you make. It allows space for creativity and inspiration. In all of this we challenge the shrink-wrapped one size fits all culture that is so stifling and destructive.

Learning a craft won’t teach you everything you need to know in order to be a modern Druid, but it will teach you a lot. The insights, like the things you make, will be entirely your own.

The Awen Rug

IMAG0386For some weeks now, much of my time away from the computer has gone into making a rag rug for my son. He’s very fond of the awen symbol, and of the squishy beneath the toes quality of rag rugs. This is the second rug I’ve made this way, and there’s been a lot to learn about textures, fine tuning methods and techniques, and working out the colours (not perfectly captured in this image but you get the gist). I still have a lot to learn on how best to handle colour. It’s a bit like pointillist painting only the colours are fixed by the fabric you have, and they go down in rows so you have to be thinking ahead. You can’t do fine detail, that’s clear, but I think I could do far more than I’ve done here…

For scale, those are Tom’s toes at the bottom of the image!

The backing was a peanut sack, my local pet store otherwise throws them out, but is happy to give them to me instead! I opened it out and hemmed the edge before starting. Every strand of fabric in there was cut by hand, worked into the hessian by hand – it’s very labour intensive, very rhythmic work that creates  a lot of thinking time. All of the fabric in this rug is stuff that could very easily have otherwise gone into the bin – small scraps, off-cuts, faded, damaged, stained, worn-thin materials from clothes and bed linen. None of it could be re-used in anything like its original form, but a rag rug transforms what is otherwise rubbish into a cheerful and snuggely addition to your home.

I put down the awen first. That meant most of the time I was working in the space an awen creates, which has given me many hours of pondering the space created by an awen, and seeing things about the nature of that space that I had not seen before. The shape of where an awen is not, is also really interesting. So much New Age thinking talks about being free from edges and boundaries, defying limitations and so forth. An awen is only itself because of its edges, and only makes sense because there are places it is not.

There’s a trancelike quality to any rhythmic and repetitive crafting. There is space to think – and that too is an interesting absence created by the shape of the thing in your hands.

Craft Life

Green man bagMuch of my crafting starts with things that are of no use to anyone else. (This may be because I am a Womble).

This project started about a month ago, when Potia sent me a box of wool scraps. I have a number of dull hessian bags, and a man who can draw. This is basically just woolly cross stitch on hessian, but the uneven nature of the underlying fabric gives it a degree of irregularity throughout. If you start with a smooth canvas and use one size of wool, you get a smoother, tidier sort of finished piece. As I am a creature of chaos and loose ends, this more bumpy outcome appeals to me more.

It’s a fine example of why I am not going to be a crafter professionally. That bag must have taken me fifty hours. I’d be hard pushed to make a pound an hour selling such things, and I have learned the hard way that it is better to make for fun and to give away, than become a person whose time is worth a pound an hour, give or take. I had a lot of fun with this, I mean to keep doing things in ways that make me happy.

Lessons in life and Druidry from 2014

As the arbitrary human dates role on, it’s as good a time as any to pause and look back. Birthdays are good for this, so are anniversaries, festivals and the like. Looking back is always helpful. Seeing the path behind can give you some insight about where you might be heading and whether that was where you wanted to go. Stuff living entirely in the moment! I want to travel from past to future by ways, means and trajectories that are at least somewhat of my choosing.

I learned some important lessons about the limits of my health, strength and endurance. I learned that if I want to do more, I also have to rest more, and for that to work I need to be more selective and say ‘no’ to things sometimes. I have to get better at choosing my fights and causes and selecting where to deploy energy and how to value various options.

I thought for a while that I should be pouring more energy into politics. I even went so far as to put my name in the hat as a possible candidate for next year’s general election, but I didn’t make it through the Party selection stage. Having spent a lot of time working out whether that was a course I could really throw heart and soul into, I was a bit adrift when that didn’t work out. It may well be that I am better on the outside of the system, as commentator, protestor, and general nuisance. There’s more room for more voices on the outside, and the process made me realise how few people have any real voice at all in conventional politics.

I learned, and relearned the value of stopping, working closely with friends in Contemplative Druidry to learn again about slowing down. That’s going to be a big part of what I do (or perhaps more accurately what I don’t do) moving forwards.

I learned to make rag rugs. I also learned that the quality of my thinking and writing are much improved by spending time on crafts projects. If I want to write, then I need to craft. This works well for me, and is a general happiness improver.

Like many people, I am increasingly horrified and prone to despair when faced with the bigger picture. The sheer scale of what humanity is getting wrong right now is unbearable, and my feelings of futility in face of it have knocked my down more times than I can count in the last twelve months. I can’t single handedly save the world. I know this. I am not one of the world’s wealthiest, able to sort vast problems out just by throwing money at them. I am not a politician, able to change laws and inform cultures. I’m not a world famous author able to get millions of people to sit up and take note. So, there is nothing I can do easily or quickly, and there is not much point wasting energy on trying to be rich, famous or powerful enough to make a difference because frankly I don’t have much natural capacity for any of those things. I don’t have the right kinds of drives and ambitions, talents, skills or experiences to draw on.

I have to work with what I’ve got. All I can do is live my values to the very best of my abilities, and talk about that in the hopes that I can support others who are doing the same and help a few people move in this direction. Small ripples in a very big pond. And of course I can pray for humanity. Even as someone who isn’t very good at faith, I am uneasily aware that we are running out of time such that it will require divine intervention, or similar, to save us from ourselves. In the meantime, there is nothing to do but live as well as I can.

My hobby is subversion

Consider these things: Baking, knitting, growing vegetables, making clothes, rag-rugging, brewing, decorating, embroidery, growing fruit and making jam, paper making… it’s not an exhaustive list. If you do these things privately for the benefit of home, family and/or immediate tribe, you have what will be understood socially, to be a hobby. Only if someone else pays for your output, is it serious and worth calling ‘work’.

This could use thinking about. All of the activities listed above, and everything akin to them, results (once you’re good at it) in good quality, entirely original things for less than it would cost to buy new. Many of the above give you an option on recycling materials, upcycling, re-using and generally being a bit greener. But these are ‘hobbies’ and not to be taken too seriously. They are not generally viewed as an economic option, or a way of life. We are to view them as amusing and perhaps a little self indulgent and not very practical when compared to buying something readymade off the shelf. Paying for something someone else has made, is convenient – that’s the story. We may be encouraged to think it will also be better than anything we could do for ourselves.

Well, when we start out as independent craftspeople mastering a new skill, the first few projects may be less than perfect. This is fine – this is the necessary investment in learning your craft. With time and practice you get better, and the more you do, the better you get. The bread I make costs about half as much as regular sliced supermarket bread, but is much superior in terms of quality, keeps better, creates less packaging to recycle and has no troubling added ingredients. All the same things can be said of my cakes, pickles, and the meals I cook on a daily basis.

In terms of usefulness to home, family, tribe and self, the things we make for ourselves can have great worth and utility. Being custom made to fit requirements, they are always a better match to what we needed than the best fit we can get from a mass producing outlet. There is a huge value, and an even greater potential value, in crafting at home. Go back before the industrial revolution, and our ancestors did a lot more for themselves. I recall reading in William Cobbett’s ‘Cottage Economy’ his feeling that there was something shameful about a household that could not answer its own basic needs and forever needed to employ other people to sort out the necessities. He was passionate about home bread making, too.

These days it is normal to pay someone else to sort out the basics for us. It is normal for a person to have a very narrow skills base, and be paid for those narrow skills, and have to pay everyone else for their skills in return. Most of us do not know how to do most of the things that we find necessary for day to day living, and as we get ever more technological, specialist and complex, we become less able to fend for ourselves. It’s not a robust system. This makes for very fragile structures that cannot flex easily in face of dramatic change or challenge. And yet our wider culture refers to this as ‘progress’.

The Transition movement, by contrast, is all about re-skilling, and learning the essential things that help us fend for ourselves. It’s not a case of knowing where the candles are in case of a power cut, it’s knowing how to make the candles.

If we were more interested in what makes life good, what adds value and comfort, what truly enriches and pleases us, then we might be more interested in being able to make things of use and beauty for ourselves and our friends, and less interested in making money for other people.

Art or Craft?

This week I did a post for the local Green blog about the politics of art.  This is a follow on, because I have been mulling it a lot, and the issues are many.

So, what is the difference, between art and craft? Both are visual, both require skill and are generally intended to result in something pleasing. So why do some activities get one label and some the other?

As far as I can make out ‘Art’ is something rich men pay other people – usually also men, to do for them, and it should have no particular practical application. Craft is made by the poor, and by women. If a very wealthy woman does it then (historically) you’d whip out ‘accomplishment’ as a term instead. Not having so much space or spare resources to lavish on decoration, those of us who are not wealthy have always tended to favour getting beauty and utility into the same item. Quilts. Rag rugs. Pottery. Gorgeous baskets. Beautiful shawls. These are crafts.

Here’s a thing though, because if people with money suddenly get excited about a craft – Shaker furniture, historic quilts, etc, then they can buy it for silly money, put it in an art gallery or display it as an Art item, and magically it becomes Art and no one uses it for its intended purpose any more. Only when we stop valuing an item in terms of utility will we see it as a beautiful piece of Art and want to display it. I think there’s a very interesting reflection of the human condition in all of this.

We tend not to value small beauty, or beauty in the mundane, or the grace of everyday items. We value things that someone can be persuaded to pay ridiculous amounts of money for. We treat utility as ‘common’ and innate uselessness as attractive.  I could take a sidestep and rant extensively about women’s footwear on these terms, too.

There is also beauty in effectiveness and efficiency. There is beauty in age and durability. There is beauty in the love that goes into crafting. I am in no way opposed to Art as a form of creativity, but I am increasingly uneasy about where it sits in terms of affluence, gratuitous displays of wealth, consumerism and smug superiority.

Historically, that which is deemed ‘great art’ has mostly been funded by either the church, or the nobility. Patronising and patronage are related words, it is worth reflecting. Our history of great art has a lot to do with who was willing to pay up, and our history of artists is frequently one of struggle and abject poverty while they were alive. The best career move an artist usually makes, is to die. They become more collectable when you know they won’t make anything better. That’s hideous, when you think about it, and the whole underpinning logic seems very wrong to me.