Thursday, April 28, 2011

Fiber, school, and kids

For the last four days, I’ve gone to an elementary school as a substitute art teacher, and given spinning and weaving demonstrations to every single class of kindergarten through second grade, numbering close to 300 children.  Had a couple pre-K classes in between, too.  Thus, my mind is humming with the after-effects, dazed and worn out, but still rolling the experience over.
Mural showing student paintings of Qatar: downtown skyscrapers with cranes, Museum of Islamic Art, camel
My favorite thing about the school where I substitute is the vast variety of students.  I noticed the first time I went that every class of 20 kids seemed to be an almost equal mix of Arab, European, Asian and African children, at least by appearance.  I was glad to see children growing up in such a rich, varied community.
The truth is, it’s even more complex.  How people look does not necessarily tell you where they’re from, and the question of where anyone is “from” when they live in Doha is another story.   When we first moved here, we met the most interesting combinations of married couples, such as Korean-Afghani/Canadian, Mexican-Egyptian, and Scottish-Malawi.  People who live here are often nomads, who have lived abroad before, and many have met their spouses away from their home country.  Their children are in the school where I taught this week.
When I told a second-grade class that my Louët wheel is from Holland, a girl said, “That’s where I’m from!” Her classmates immediately started to argue with her, contradicting her Dutch origins, until she insisted, grumpily, that her father is from Holland.  It sounds absurd, but I assumed that her family has lived anywhere but Holland, and her friends knew this, and so questioned her sudden claim to Holland.

Other conversations I had with or overheard among the students were similar:
“Have you been to Taiwan?  That’s where my mother is from.  Have you been to Germany? That’s where my father is from.”

“I thought you were Scottish.”
“Half-Scottish, half-English.”
“Oh, okay.”

“She was talking about being from Spain. How can she say she’s from Spain?  Is her father from Spain?”

All the students interact in English, and even take on American accents, since it’s an American school, but when their parents come to pick them up, the halls are a chatter of Spanish, Dutch, Arabic, Japanese, Tagalog, Hindi, Czech, Norwegian, etc. 
Given that the lingua franca is English, and their current home is Doha, the children are in an unusual situation concerning identity.  Accents and looks give away a certain amount of information, but the rest of their story has to be narrated and explained, even to their closest friends. This explains why I heard so many snatches of conversation about different countries or nationalities – during kindergarten and first grade, they must be just sorting out how to present their identity to others, experimenting with what to say and how to characterize their families.
World Peace installation in the elementary school hall
Oh, and they enjoyed the fiber demonstrations, too.  It was a great opportunity to tap into hidden skills or interests: if children have never tried to work with fiber, there’s no way to know whether they might take to it.  One Arab boy, who worried me because he was completely hyper during my demonstration, sat down and proceeded to hand-pick and fluff up the nicest, largest mound of raw wool anyone made all week.  Another boy insisted on trying to spin with the spindle, and held his hands below mine as I drafted, mimicking my motions and spinning the spindle when it stopped.
Since these kids were so small and so numerous, they only got to handle very small bits of fiber, which we tried to gently pull apart and add some twist, using fingers or rolling it along our leg.  Then they got to use prepared pencil-and-potato spindles, spinning them to ply yarns together into bracelets they could keep.  They plied the two yarns, then held the middle and let it fold in half and twist into a four-ply, unknowingly making cabled yarn.  This was the best thing the other art teacher and I could come up with that let them use the spindle and take something away with them.
The second grade was already engaged in weaving on little frame looms, so they continued their work, with the option to explore fibers and ask me questions.
By exposing hundreds of children to fiber and spinning, I hope to simply plant the seed in those few who will come back to it and carry on the exploration later in life, when they get the chance again.
The price I had to pay was showing the dead worm inside the silk cocoon again, and again, and again, listening to the chorus of “Eeeeww!” and managing the mosh pit of cocoon-handling competition that naturally follows.
It was worth it.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


Years ago, a friend took me through a mental exercise that began with things I’d take to a desert island, then words associated with those things. Through a process of elimination, one arrives at a single word, which is revealing about oneself.
My word was “comfort,” which initially bothered me, because it sounded like I was bent on living a pampered life.  At the time, I’d been in India for several years, often camping in the foothills of the Himalayas, carrying everything in a backpack, and otherwise living in conditions most people back home would consider rustic to primitive.  So the apparent prominence of “comfort” in my psyche came as a surprise.
 (wedding quilt for K & D - scanned photo from 2000)
But the things I’d chosen to have with me reflected my predilection for fiber arts.  At the time I was quilting, not yet knitting or spinning, and the materials of quiltmaking were the first items I listed.  What is more associated with comfort than a quilt?  I began to think that rather than seeking comfort, my emphasis was on creating it.
 (Manic Mandala quilt for AK, scanned from 1998)
Finally, I looked up the etymology, and the root of comfort is fort, strength, fortitude.  The verb to comfort is to “strengthen much.”  To be comfortable is to be likely to give strength, as in moral support.  All the implications of cushiness and well-padded protection from unpleasantness seem to have crept in later.
This makes me much happier to accept the word, and it’s quite obvious, looking around my home, that everything I do is aimed toward “giving strength” – to my husband, to myself, to other people in my life.  Living far from friends, I have learned how to manifest remote comfort in the form of handmade gifts.  The fiber skills I learn and the time devoted to them are methods of comforting myself, giving both strength and solace.
This occurred to me while I was knitting a tea cosy.  For some reason, or probably for several reasons, I’ve derived a distinct sense of comfort from this little project, which sounds absurd in the face of the world’s problems: a tea cosy? But there it is. Comfort.  And in order to help give strength to anyone else, I have to strengthen myself.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Very small things

There's a world of trouble and pain, and meanwhile I'm just doing what I know how to do, and hoping to make a positive difference. I have work in progress for others, repositories of love and good wishes.
 A sweater for my father.  This is important.
 And a mitered cross blanket, from the Mason Dixon benefit pattern, made from leftover yarns with a view toward Afghans for Afghans. Garter stitch soothes, when one is overwhelmed by world news.
Then I have work in progress for myself.  I'm trying to learn to spin and weave.
 (Abby's Batts.  There is no substitute.)
Hard-won handspun complementary warp weaving on the backstrap.  This is decidedly harder than it looks.  Lessons in humility and patience.  Feeling the need to spend more time with fiber and yarn.  Challenging as they can be, sometimes they are the only things whose language I understand.

Oh, one more thing I'm doing is making care packages of Socks for Japan. Reading the updates on that site made it all very real, and I'm grateful to have a way to share something useful.