Saturday, May 28, 2011

Hands On Color

A week ago I drove up through northeast Alabama to Monteagle in the mountains of Tennessee.  The sky was clear, and even though twisted billboards and splintered tree trunks gave evidence of the recent deadly tornados that tore through these valleys in April, the road side meadows showe no signs of nature’s abuse.  In fact, Queen-Anne’s-lace, pink bindweed, yellow daisies and purple joe-pye weed bloomed in clumps all along the way.  No landscape designer could have scattered the colors more artfully. 

Cloister at Dubose Conference Center
All this color was a great introduction to my destination, Lynne Vogel’s Hands On Color spinning workshop at the Dubose Conference Center.  Beside the residence hall, the cherry tree was filled with ripe, slightly tart cherries, the rose bushes were in fragrant bloom in the little cloister garden, all presages of a weekend of rich color.

Once I arrived, I checked into my room, and settled in with nine other spinners to learn new skills and revel in Lynne’s world of rich, complex color spun into art yarn, those amazing skeins of luxurious, textured yarns that are featured in yarn stores like Tiffany jewels, and Lynne’s yarns, displayed near a sunny window, glowed like jewels with their multi-faceted textures in coils, locks, and even beads and fabrics. 

Spinners always turn out to be fascinating people.  Over the course of the weekend, as we got to know each other, I was amused, impressed, and touched by every person in the group.
Art yarn by Lynne Vogel

Some had been spinning for decades, others only for months, but each spinner had a palette of colors all her own, and by the end of the weekend, each had created breathtaking skeins of yarn. 

Lynne introduced us to a wide range of techniques, from spinning thin-and-thick singles to coil wrapping and coilless wrapping, auto-wrapping and introducing diverse fibers by creating “mini-batts.” 
Lynne's art yarns

So many techniques that I have had to go back this week and practice the ones I didn’t get a chance to master during the weekend.

My goal was to learn how to spin fatter yarns and how to introduce texture.  I did learn to do both.  I also had the good fortune to peek over their shoulders at nine other spinners, as well as Lynne, who was generous in demonstrating every technique on her own wheel.  All the workshop skeins were stunning.  Each spinner had a palette of rich hues and tones particular to her own color vision.  Greens and blues like a tropical paradise contrasted with deep, mysterious reds and purples. 

On the last morning of the workshop, Lynne and Jan Quarles laid out an enormous assortment of fibers on a long table.  Each of us selected a “fiber salad” made up of fibers of our choice.  We blended the mix on drum carders and spun up our salad batts.  Amazingly enough, the random salads blended with our other skeins.  Each of us was drawn to the same group of colors. 

This time, my palette was earth tones of pinky, purply browns with pale blue and lilac accents.  Looking at my sample skeins, I recognize a sea-change in my color sense.  I have shifted away from the jewel tones I favored before.  These are more complex, more reflective of the summer season fast approaching, or maybe reflecting some seismic shift inside of me.

After a good fiber workshop, I’m left with the existential question:  how to I integrate all of this into my work?  What kind of yarn do I want to spin?  And why?  And for what kind of final product? 

I have lots of happy spinning ahead of me in the coming months.  Techniques to master, fibers to learn about, yarns to treasure, plans to make for sweaters and scarves, hats and cowls.  I’ll be back next year to see my new spinning friends and revel for two days in hands-on color.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Stitches and Time

When I was nine years old, I was obsessed with an obscure corner in the Detroit Institute of Arts.  In a tiny gallery on the basement level, far from the harsh glare of sunlight, I found a display of needlework made in seventeenth-century Spain.  Pressing my nose to the glass, I loved to study the meticulous loops, the tiny knots, the satin-stitched petals and delicate chain-stitched stamens in white threads on fine white linen, the long stockings knitted in silk at a gauge of at least thirty stitches to the inch.  Thousands of stitches, hundreds of hours.

Later, in college I discovered that these impossibly delicate, almost invisible stitches were made by privileged matrons, spinsters or widows of imperial Spain, women relieved of mundane duties like laundry, housecleaning, and cooking by a fleet of servants. When powerful men were getting educations and conducting wars, their sisters and mothers passed the long hours with meticulous, time-consuming needlework, delicate luxuries for bridal trousseaus and infant layettes. These privileged ladies had hours, weeks, years to fill, and only a few activities to fill them with—music, reading, writing letters, and needlework.   One member of their group would read from poetry or a popular romance while the others quietly stitched away.

Today, we divide our lives into discreet units—the half-hour television show, the ten-minute coffee break.  We expect answers at the click of a keyboard.  We learn of events on the other side of the globe seconds after they occur.  But once in a while, we get a chance to tap into that older experience of time as a kind of quiet pool that expands around us as we enter its depths.  At the end of a workday, when the dishes are loaded in the dishwasher and the laundry is folded and put away, I sit down for a half-hour to knit, and time stills. I count rows and pattern repeats rather then minutes.  My heart rate slows as my hands and eyes focus on the next stitch, the next crossed loop.  As I get into the rhythm, time settles, like the surface of water after a pebble’s dive.

This week, during my Spring Break, I join a group of knitters who are designing and knitting jackets following Barbara Walker’s top-down method.  As we gather around our hostess’s table decorated for St. Patrick’s Day, in the warm aroma of corned-beef wafting from the kitchen, our jokes and small talk gradually give way to periods of silence.  We are finding our places, picking up the thread of our progress. 

Bright early-spring sun pours into the room through lace curtains.  We knit contently.  The conversation slows, and then, in softened voices, slow-paced, the stories emerge, the ones that are deepest and most urgent, the stories we hold in our hearts, most important but most difficult to share. We are quiet in our sympathy.   There’s no rush to comment or offer solutions.  We knit one stitch after another, together but separately, and we listen and feel together another’s trouble. 

             After a couple of hours, one by one, we fold up our work and wish each other farewell, not because we’re watching a clock, but because we seem to arrive collectively at a moment of closure.  I don’t check the time until I’m back at my car, back to the twenty-first century world of digital displays of minute and seconds.

Who knows what stories were shared on those sun-drenched afternoons in Barcelona or Seville, what tales of wars or shipwrecks, of dropsy or St. Vitus’ Dance, what recipes, what scandals?  Did the Spanish ladies pause one afternoon to gaze at their completed masterpieces, the stockings and handkerchiefs, nightcaps and collars?  Did they tuck each item into a trunk with lavender and their hopes for a young couple’s long and happy life?  Little did they know that their work would travel far from their hands to unfurl across the centuries, the long, patient strands of nameless women who had all the time in the world on their hands, to inspire a little girl growing up in the Motor City searching for something old, something strange and beautiful as her dreams.