Saturday, December 31, 2011

Taking note

I was just told by someone whom I admire and respect to take note of how far my weaving has progressed this year, and to be proud.  So I decided to take a look, and overcome my hesitancy to show off by inviting you to look with me.  The image above was a year ago, minus one week.  I had already woven a few plainweave pieces on the backstrap, but I was just beginning the Andean pebble weave journey, guided by Laverne and the community of backstrap weavers in Ravelry.
 From this basic first pattern I struggled my way uphill. Instructive and mind-blowing information from Abby Franquemont, Ed Franquemont and Christine Franquemont added to my determination to learn the patterns and technique. I remember this next one was a challenge, with many mistakes made and corrected. It is still waiting to be finished as a little bag.
 Meanwhile, I began experimenting with more textured handspun, combining handspun yarns with other materials for scarves, using handspun as warp to highlight its features.
 My warping set-up was outdoors at this point, stakes driven into the ground. (I have since acquired warping pegs and c-clamps, so I can warp in my kitchen more easily.)
 I like looking at this one because I don't own it anymore - it was bought by a friend!
 While weaving the above, I was simultaneously working on a longer pebble weave piece, in jakaku sisan pattern. This became a new backstrap when finished.
 In addition to the Andean and handspun art yarn themes, I also made a study of Bedouin styles and techniques, with the help of Joy Totah Hilden's book and a weaver I met here in Doha.
 Shajarah above, and al'ouerjan below, two typical Bedouin design elements.
 More art, a scarf made with thorhammer's handspun (to whom I owe thanks for a Versatile Blogger Award nomination - thank you Kat!), with kimono silk fabric weft.
 Attempting to use handspun for pebble weave was another big challenge, which was unsuccessful at first, but worked out better after going away for the summer and focusing my mind and energies.
 I may be most proud of this piece, since it's all handspun yarn I spun on traditional spindles from Peru and Bolivia, mostly during the Tour de Fleece in July. I learned volumes about how to spin for weaving from the good and bad aspects of this weaving.
 And more art, this time putting fine crochet cotton through a rigid heddle to get more of a regular-loom effect.
 And a lagging pebble weave strip in mayo q'enko, that took me forever to finish.
 More experiments with textured handspun, in scarf form.
 And the initial ikat attempt, which turned out like this.
 Finally, a wide Bedouin-inspired piece, which pleases me to no end. It felt like quite an accomplishment, wrangling 368 ends and having it work!
 This led to the ouerjan warping weekend, which resulted in three simultaneous warps going on.
 The large piece has been sewn together with the narrow strip below to make a bag, my final finished piece of 2011. I have taken note of this incredible path of weaving, and I am proud. And very, very grateful, as I've mentioned before.  Happy New Year to all, and thank you.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Book review - Dreaming in Hindi

I first heard about Katherine Russell Rich on NPR’s This American Life, for which she was interviewed not because of this book, but due to her claim to fame of surviving stage 4 cancer for 17 years.  I found the interview disappointing, in that the writers failed to ask her interesting questions or really get beyond the “wow, that’s so far out that you’re still alive” thing. Her trip to India and the book about learning Hindi was only mentioned in passing at the end of the show, and I thought, well why didn’t they get her to talk about that?  I immediately looked up the book and ordered a copy.
The author doesn’t need me to give her publicity – Oprah has already done that, putting Dreaming in Hindi: Coming Awake in Another Language on her top-ten list. But I read it and liked it so much I wanted to talk about it in detail, and then I remembered I have a blog.
As a seasoned visitor & part-time resident of India, a student of several languages including Hindi, and an amateur linguist with an abiding interest in how we use and learn language, it would be difficult to find anyone more primed to appreciate this book than me. The author chronicles her sudden compulsion to learn Hindi and go to India to do so, and the simultaneous obsession with studying what second language acquisiton does to the mind.

She writes as a journalist, and the memoir reads in some ways like a very long New Yorker article, skillfully alternating between her personal experience of Hindi in India and linguistic analysis, the science of the brain and language which she researched upon her return.  They are equally tricky subjects.

A New York resident, Rich arrived in India five days prior to September 11, 2001.  Her stay in Rajasthan continued through the horrendous sectarian violence in Gujarat in early 2002.  These events add a particular intensity to her story, and deeply affect her experience of the language.  She notes that words such as “terrorism,” “fanaticism,” and “war” were burned irrevocably into her memory, so often were they heard and used.
I was in India during the same time period, but in much different parts of the country, less exposed to the furor of Hindu-Muslim conflict, and less affected by the “day the whole world changed” in general.  It is educative to see how this time played out differently in various Indian states.
Lest one assume that this makes for dreary reading – linguistic theory and the post-9/11 atmosphere –  Rich has a sense of humor that, in addition to being an essential prerequisite to learning Hindi in India, provides a delightful momentum to the book.  It’s possible that the funny bits are funnier if one knows India, or maybe they’re just funny on a subtler level.  At any rate, I felt a constant sense of knowing exactly what she was talking about, from discussions of “geezers” (the kind that provide hot water, not the old men) to the language of the head wobble, as in “’Haan’, I said, and gave a half head wobble, the one that means This is life.
The observations on immersion in a new language also struck home to me: “To learn a second language, you have to be willing to give your self up, the self encoded in your first one. You are no longer a person who speaks with facility and authority.”
Submitting to this state, this apparent idiocy, may be one of the hardest things about learning through immersion. I have often felt the frustration of people treating me like I’m dull-minded because of my rudimentary use of their language, or of feeling that these people can never really know me because they could not understand me if I spoke my native tongue, which is my native “me.”  There’s a surrender involved, as Rich observes and lives, and the lure and fulfillment of the second language self has to be worth the temporary sacrifice of the native language self.
There are endless arguments surrounding the extent to which language influences thought, and these are well addressed in the book, if only to illustrate the intractability of the question.  But it would be hard to deny the interweaving of language and culture, and Rich chronicles the transformation of her habits and body language, and even her face.  It’s literally impossible to be a brisk New Yorker in Hindi, and adopting the language necessitates adopting a certain air, a new approach to time, hierarchy, decorum.  This is also quite familiar to me, as I’ve slipped in and out of several different cultures, chameleon-like in the adaptation of outward behaviour and presumptions.  This is the best part of the adventure for me, and for Rich as well, it seems. By immersing in not only language but culture, one can become someone else, learning the ways of India by living them, as a method actor fully inhabits her character.
So I enjoyed the book because it was a good read, but also because of the way it made me think - the questions and ruminations that arose regarding this urge to dive into another place with one's whole mind, absorbing every aspect of the experience like a sponge, and becoming transformed by the process.
As if this book were not already more than appropriate for me, the author ends up sitting with a group of elderly Freedom Fighters and learning to spin cotton under a monument to Gandhi.  
Which could very well lead into my next blog post, if I don't get distracted by something else.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Beginning Ikat

"Not every piece is a Masterpiece. But a masterpiece will not just show up, full blown, the first, second or even third time you do something. It takes work. It takes a body of work, with incremental learning along the way. It takes a visceral and physical understanding of the materials and process in which you choose to work; it requires you to put in the time. The subtle body knowledge that comes from working on your craft has nothing to do with what’s in your head; it’s a muscle memory, and an unconscious knowing without thinking, an integral part of who you are."

When I heard that a friend here in Doha was going to try out an indigo dye kit, I decided that was my chance to attempt ikat.  Or I should say planned-out ikat, since I had dyed an ikat warp once before in Judith MacKenzie’s workshop.  The warp in Judith’s class was tied and dyed multiple times, in a very haphazard fashion, since I was trying to fit it in between the preparation of another 230-end warp for woven shibori.  It turned out very nicely, but I can’t say there was much design behind it.
This time, I wanted to tie deliberately, with some sense of order, and since it would only be blue and white, I could hope to get a simple pattern with a simple set of ties.
 I made a warp with undyed cotton yarn I’d purchased in Syria last February, stretched it between two chairs in my kitchen where the light is good, and divided the warp threads into bundles of ten.  Using strips of plastic from grocery bags, I wrapped tightly around alternate bundles across the warp, wrapping three times and tying a knot, covering about ¾” with each tie.  Then a few inches along the warp, I’d tie the alternate groups of ten that were not tied before.  This way my resist marks would be staggered – if they were up next to each other, they’d form a check pattern.
 Sitting on the floor, wetting the warps with a spray bottle and tying was grueling due to the hunched posture required, and it took me chunks of two different days to complete the tying of my 247-end, 90-inch long warp.  In the meantime, I watched a documentary film made by Virginia Davis and Hillary Steel about the master Mexican weaver Don Evaristo of the Teluca Valley, who weaves cotton ikat (or jasperebozo with 100 ends per inch, dyeing intricate resisted patterns which are alternated with plain warp. 
 His work made me feel like a pre-schooler drawing with huge, oversized crayons, but one has to start somewhere.
Our indigo vat was rather weak, but I prioritized the warp yarn and kept dipping, and dipping, slowly increasing the depth of color to a shade that looked like faded denim. I also dyed an untied skein of cotton to use for weft.  Both skeins ended up with a very irregular penetration of color, but this semi-solid effect adds a sort of texture. Just getting the color dark enough to contrast the resists well was my goal.
I’ve admired ikat weaving ever since I worked in an import store in Kansas City and got exposed to textiles from all over the world.  The Indonesian ikat weavings completely baffled me when I contemplated the amount of precision and complexity of skills required to execute such a design. 
Ever since I bought this sarong from Flores, back in 1990 or so, I’ve dreamed of backstrap weaving and ikat.  The Flores designs are my favorite because they’re delicate, small-scaled and repetitive. I also like their palette of brown, ochre, russet and a touch of black.
Now that I’m a weaver and can examine this more knowledgeably, I see that it’s made of four panels, each with selvedges on both sides – probably two panels were woven, the one with the border design and the one without, and these were each cut in half to sew into the sarong shape (the vertical seam is a French seam, hiding the edges.)  It’s a warp-faced weave, and the ikat design is in the warp only.  It’s cotton, but I’m not sure if it’s 100% cotton because there’s a shine to the surface.  My fiber-identifying skills need some work.
The other concrete inspiration I have with me is my kasuri robe, purchased by my husband in Japan in about 1998.  This pure cotton, indigo-dyed double-ikat was the fabric of the peasantry in previous centuries, which always gives me pause: really?? This is what the poor people wore??  
 It’s “double-ikat” because both warp and weft are resist-dyed to create the pattern, and both need to be properly lined up during weaving for the pattern to manifest.  Boggle your mind? It does mine.  In some areas of this robe, you can see where the warp and weft got jogged apart, and the pattern disperses. As with the sarong, the kimono is woven in long strips and then assembled into a garment.  The kasuri is balanced plainweave, though, not warp-faced, and was probably woven on a frame loom.
Double ikat also appears in India, where the craft has been developed and traditionally sustained by two communities, one in Gujarat and one in Orissa. I saw some stunning examples at an exhibit during the Textile Society Symposium (2010) in Lincoln, Nebraska. This technique, known as patola or bandha, usually appears on saris woven with silk or fine cotton.
Returning to my humble attempt, I was quite happy with the precision of the resist my ties created, but as you can see (bottom photo,) the resisted threads got staggered away from their bundle-mates in the process of setting up the warp for weaving.  I could have adjusted them and tied them into position, but instead I just started weaving, interested to see what it would look like.
When I begin to weave something like this, I am overwhelmed by the fact of it – I can’t quite believe that I’m making fabric in the same way people the world over have made fabric, tying up to something stable and tensioning the warp with the body. It’s similar to the feeling of spinning with a spindle, back in the beginning when I was awed by the ancientness (awkward word, but spellcheck does not dispute it) of the act. I can’t describe it, but there’s a sense of space and time expanding below and above and all around, erasing the gaps between me and anyone else who has ever done this.
So I carry on, weaving my staggered ikat marks, which spell out a strange rhythm of hieroglyphs. I embrace their unhinged pattern the way I embrace the serendipitous designs of resist-dye on fabric, which often carry the imprints of water, the sublime irregularities of nature. Giving voice to the unpredictable is one of the joys of creation, and I save any urge to “correct” the design for another time.  This is my first piece, my learning piece, and it will have its own language.