Just Do It…

I’ve taught most of my adult life, in one form or another. Inspiring others to do for themselves is incredibly rewarding, watching that process of cause and effect, and seeing a student run with creativity, putting their own stamp on the information I have given, it all makes my heart sing.

It would be really great if I could take a workshop with myself once in awhile…

I’ve already mentioned in previous blogs, my quest to reinvent myself, explore new areas and adventures, and keep myself as busy as possible in this challenging year. Challenging for many reasons, not the least of them is my son’s deployment to the middle east. I’ve needed to stay distracted and creative.

And of course, one of the biggest distractions of the year has been replanting my property with thousands of native perennials, bushes and trees. I spend hours out there watering, weeding, and watching bugs, bees, birds (I even saw a small praying mantis) and the activity in general that makes an ecosystem, which I’ve largely ignored up to this point, actually felt irritation, in that it is one more thing calling to me.

Things are starting to bloom, to mature, and I’m beginning to think about fall, and harvest, and when and where to do all those things that I thought about last spring. I’m largely in uncharted territory here. I know enough to know I don’t know what the heck I’m doing, but yet, I know I have to start somewhere. I’ve been taking workshops all year, in natural dyeing, eco printing, indigo dyeing, and even making a willow chair, which I talked about in my last blog.

I’m armed with a stack of books in basketry, in eco printing, in natural dyeing, in native plants, in pollinator gardens, and there is a thing as my dear friend Robyn Spady says, called Analysis Paralysis…

I would tell my students, if you want to get good at something, like making garments from your handwoven fabric, don’t expect the first thing you make to be incredible, prize winning, worthy of a Convergence fashion show. You have to start somewhere. You have to learn to fit your body, you have to learn to use your equipment, you have to learn the perks of your cloth, you have to learn what your body can and can’t do (yet) and personal ergonomics, studio set up, or lack of one, all of those things require a journey. But you have to start somewhere, and you have to keep at it, and discover for yourself. Going to YouTube and searching for a topic, and hoping that person will show you exactly how, might get you pointed in the right direction, but you still have to get on the horse and start the journey.

I will be taking a class starting next Friday, at Peters Valley in basketry. It is with a basket maker I adore, and I’ve taken a class with him before. This class is in free form basketry. I thought, though it isn’t required (materials list is, bring your creativity and a water bottle) that it would be great if I could bring some cordage I made, and in fact, I need to do something with all of last year’s shed full of flag iris leaves that have been dried and stored. There will be a new harvest coming…

So I started making cordage, soaking a few leaves at a time, making 2-3 yards in a sitting, and I’m getting a lovely little stack. I’ve since added a few more yards since I took this photo.

I took an indigo dye workshop with my guild a couple weeks ago (sodium hydroxide vat) and at the end of the day, tossed in a silk scarf blank, thinking I could use it for eco printing. As I’m out watering, I’m thinking, I really need to start harvesting some of these leaves, the peonies are on the way out, and I really need to harvest and dry, or just use them. And every time I eat an avocado, I save the skins and pits, and store them in the freezer. The bag fell out the other day. It was full.

So, I decided to put the books down, and just do it. I grabbed a bunch of wool skeins I had bought, and mordanted them with Aluminum Sulfate. Except, I was using a burner I picked up used, and didn’t really know the settings, and ended up boiling the wool, and to my embarrassment, partially felted six skeins. I felt like a complete beginner. I’m not into watching pots, but a watched pot never boils?

After I removed the skeins from the mordant, I tossed in some silk lengths for scarves, tone on tone silk jacquard, with a pretty watery design in it. And I tossed in a yard of a silk/cotton lining fabric, just because, I’m curious.

Annoyed with myself, I took the avocados out of the freezer and someone told me to grind up the pits. I pulled out my food processor, with the grater disk, and realized that I needed to thaw the pits first. Duh… Even a Cuisinart won’t grate rocks…

I put them in the sun, and they thawed within the hour, and I was able to grind the pits up, and tossed it all into a soup pot and didn’t care if they all boiled away, except that I read later that boiling them takes away the pink color. Sigh…

I got a pretty peach color, with two skeins of wool, one mordanted and one not (I read that avocados don’t need a mordant), and I added one of the silk lengths.

And it seems with all foodstuffs, that the color isn’t really stable, or so I’ve read. So once washed, they were kind of dull and uninspiring, and one of the skeins is partially felted… There is that. But I can always overdye…

I took the peach colored silk jacquard length, and went out and harvested a bowl full of cool stuff. Cotinus (smoke bush), Japanese maple, ferns, Oak, Peonies, Rose leaves, Redbud, and I tossed in for good measure some onion skins.

I used an iron blanket, a length of cotton I had, dipped in Ferrous Sulfate, and laid on top. Rolled the whole thing up and steamed the bundle, for maybe an hour, forgetting that I had to go out to an appointment, and didn’t want to just walk away from a steaming roaster. So I turned it off and a few hours later came back to it.

The results were hugely disappointing. Other than the orange pops of the onion skins, there was almost no imprint on the silk.

Though the iron blanket was pretty. But not what I was going for.

I grabbed the indigo dyed scarf, and tried again. This time, I just went back to basics, and sprayed it with 50/50 vinegar and water, and tried again.

Super disappointed, there was no imprint at all except for the few coreopsis flowers I tossed on at the last minute.

Still, there are many avenues to take here, so I started over, mordanted the indigo scarf with aluminum sulfate, and dipped all the botanicals in Ferrous Sulfate before laying them onto the scarf.

I covered it with an iron blanket, another length of cotton from the stash, and finally, I got something I can work with.

The iron blanket actually had some color in it, but I am starting to think about different post options, and thought, what if I tossed it into a dyebath, and so I did, with a handful of onion skins. I always have those available. The onion skins and the ferrous sulfate combined to make a lovely green. I haven’t washed either scarf, I read I should wait for a few days…

Meanwhile, I’ve ordered a bunch of dye extracts and chemicals from Botanical Colors in Seattle. They will take a while to get across the country. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to locate a source for aluminum acetate, everyone seems to be on back order. I’m patient. I have enough to keep me busy.

But I’m starting to get excited, see what I can try next. None of this is what I actually want as a result, but it is a start. I won’t make that award winning piece for awhile, if ever, but that isn’t the point here. I’m learning, exploring, wondering what will happen if… And that is the point. And all of this is coming from my gardens. Except the chemicals…

Of course, having learned my lesson, I now baby-sit pots all day long. I thought I was off the hook watering my gardens the last couple of days, since we were supposed to have torrential rains tonight into tomorrow. It looks like most of it will go south of us. So that means back to watering tomorrow, but I had a couple days just sitting and watching pots, and working on quilt appliqué block number seven.

There are nine blocks in this quilt, a project my mom bought in the 90’s, and never got to do; asking me last year if I would make it for her. Her arthritis is too bad now, she is 93. I agreed and it has been an amazing project. The coolest puzzle I’ve ever assembled. Once the 9 cat blocks are finished and assembled, there is a huge vine that meanders through the entire quilt, the trunk of which starts with the cat I’m working on, his claws are scratching the trunk, or will be. I can’t completely stitch them down until the rest of the quilt is together. It is the perfect project to work on, that and cordage from my invasive flag iris leaves, while I sit and watch pots so they don’t boil.

And I did order an induction burner from Amazon. I can actually set the temperature…

Stay tuned…

A Story…

Because life isn’t nearly as much fun if you can’t make a good story out of it…

There is a wonderful fiber school called Sievers School of Fiber Arts on Washington Island Wisconsin. I taught there for probably a dozen years before Covid put an end to my travels and I chose not to reschedule after Covid ended.

Sievers has a willow patch, that they tend and harvest every fall, and they have always offered a class in making a willow chair. Many of my regular students talked lovingly of coming in the fall, with their spouses and making a willow chair, and would show me photos of the pair of chairs on their porches, decks, verandas, whatever. I can’t tell you how much I wanted to come with my husband over the years and do this class with him, so we would have a pair of willow chairs on our deck that we made together.

It would have meant that my husband and I would have had to drive from NJ to Wisconsin and back, with two large chairs in tow, and somehow, that class was never at a time when both of us were available and could make the trek.

When my husband died, of course that dream came to an end, and since I no longer teach on the road (though I do miss Sievers), traveling out there by myself to bring back a chair didn’t make sense.

But I live an hour away from another craft school, Peters Valley School of Craft. When I looked at the course offerings back in January, I couldn’t believe they were offering a willow chair class. My husband was gone, but I could still do the class myself and not have to drive back from Wisconsin.

I signed up, though this one was a five day class, not a three day class. I didn’t care. It was actually one of eight classes I signed up for at the Valley this spring/summer. I want to learn.

What I didn’t realize at the time, was the actual dates of the class coincided with the 8th anniversary of my husband’s death. Which was Monday.

Working with willow is challenging for someone used to manipulating fibers, soft things, that though they have a mind of their own, will work with me, or rather I learned to work with them to achieve my goal. I’m still learning to understand live wood. Freshly picked. Shipped in from Montana, since Peters Valley is in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area , part of the National Park System. You can’t pick anything in a national park. So no willow patches.

There were only three of us in the class, which was great as I usually needed a second set of hands to help hold the bent willow in place. The teacher Walter Shaw, of Wapiti Willow Studio, was generous with his time. And he created a chair as a demo, staying one step ahead. Right next to where I was building mine.

This voice in my head kept encouraging me to ask Walter what he planned to do with the chair he was building. He said he wasn’t sure, his wife (who was teaching a ceramics class at the Valley the same week) was encouraging him to make furniture for her new ceramics studio. I asked if he would sell me the chair…

He agreed, and on Monday, like I said, the 8th anniversary of my husband’s death, I wrote a check for Walter’s demo chair, which matched mine perfectly, same willow, same maple base.

Since I was commuting, I brought home one of the chairs Monday night, and the second chair Tuesday night. I felt my husband there the entire time, and understood that he wanted me to have a pair of chairs too. And so, now I do, sitting proudly on my deck, under the gazebo cover.

We had time at the end of the class to make a willow tray. This was a challenge. This isn’t basketry willow, these are willow branches and they were very hard to weave in and out of the supports. But the tray is lovely.

This is the second class I’ve taken at Peters Valley since I wrote my last post. The previous one, at the end of May, wasn’t the best class I’ve ever taken. The instructor was overly enthusiastic with all of the techniques she wanted to try with us to explore Eco Printing, within a three day period. Since the current trend is to Eco Print, or print with botanicals on cloth, by dyeing the cloth first with natural dyes, much of the class was focused on natural dyeing and the use of modifiers. We made lots of small samples for a notebook. We learned to make print paste as well, and experimented with block printing, flower pounding, making our own soy milk for a mordant and print paste base. It was a lot in 3 days, and though I took a notebook full of notes, I’m no longer sure which sample goes with which technique. We even tossed a cotton tote back into a “dirty pot” on the last day.

We did print two silk scarves, one dyed with madder, and the other with logwood, using an iron blanket, but I will honestly say, I wasn’t happy with anything I did there. But I have a lot of things to explore, and I’m already starting to save leaves, since I have a yard full of very printable botanicals. Winter will be fun this year.

A couple of weeks ago, I came home from wherever I was, and discovered the mother lode of magazines in my mail box. I’m a member of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and get their bulletin a couple times a year, and they are always interesting and informative. In the mailbox was also the latest issue of Shuttle, Spindle, and Dyepot, from the Handweavers Guild of America. And there was the much anticipated Journal of Weavers, Spinners, and Dyers, a gorgeous publication from the UK.

This issue was much anticipated because I wrote an article on sewing with handwoven fabric, some many months ago. I finally got to see it in print. It really is a lovely article, and it is fun to look at my heavily edited manuscript written in British English, British spelling, metric equivalents, etc. The article is available as a PDF download from their website.

And of course, through it all, I’m out there daily tending the garden. The planting is complete, for now, and my job is to keep everything alive. It is lovely to watch the changes each day. Something is always blooming. Though I do watch the weather app in my phone hoping to see some rain in the forecast so I get a break once in a while!

Lots of bluestone walkways. The landscape designer built a stream bed for heavy rain runoff, that meanders down along the “ridge”, under the shed steps, and through a trough out the back of the property. Those are Clethra bushes, Itea, and a couple of American Hornbeam trees.

One of the pond complexes…

The rebuilt gazebo

This is my view every morning when I eat my breakfast. There are baby koi along with the Shubunkins goldfish. They are quite hilarious to watch. Spunky little critters!

I’m getting to take lots of pretty flower pictures, all of these already existed on my property. The perennials the landscape designer planted are still very small. Next year they should start filling the spaces, so there won’t be dirt to weed and they shouldn’t need watering. Each day there is something new to appreciate. These aren’t native hydrangeas, but the landscape designer did plant a few native ones. I think they are white, but still early to tell.

I have lots of volunteer Fleabane peaking out around my property. I love the little white daisy flowers.

After we ripped off all the invasive Akebia vine from the gazebo, we were left with a structure in desperate need of support. We shored it up, and discovered we had a crossvine that was barely surviving, and this year the trumpet flowers from it were glorious. There is a large white willow that frames the gazebo.

My clematis survived, which I wasn’t sure about since it was tangled in a mess of oriental bittersweet.

And of course peonies are gorgeous for about 4 hours, and then the rains always come as soon as they open up, which makes them not so gorgeous. But for a day, I had beautiful peonies.

My landscape designer planted two southern Magnolia trees. The flower blooms are gorgeous.

And of course, I have roses.

Though the irises are gone now, they were the most spectacular I have ever seen them this past spring.

One very rainy day, I hunkered down in the basement and got the body of my pieced jacket together. It is quite fun. Only needs a lining and perimeter bias trim. Waiting for another rainy day, but the forecast is calling for hot and dry. In the mid to upper 90’s. Sigh…

And when I can, after dark, I sit curled up and continue working on the appliqué cat quilt, a project of my mom’s that she asked me to do for her, since this kind of work at age 93, is challenging. The kit is one from the 90’s from Maggie Walker. This is block number 5. I still have to finish embroidering the whiskers and stitch the name along the side, Abyssinian.

I’ve already started #6, which will be challenging, because it overlaps #9, and I have to wait to finish much of #6, until I build #9. This is the coolest puzzle I’ve ever assembled.

My retrospective at County College of Morris is still up, running through August 22. It isn’t open on the weekend but the new summer hours have been posted.

Wednesday, May 8 – Tuesday, June 25 Mon-Fri, 8:30am-4:00pm. Sat-Sun, CLOSED

Wednesday, June 26 – Thursday, August 1 Mon-Thu, 8:30am-8:00pm. Fri, 8:30am-4:00pm. Sat-Sun, CLOSED

Friday, August 2 – Thursday, August 28 Mon-Fri, 8:30am-4:00pm. Sat-Sun, CLOSED

And finally, my exhibit is up on their website.

All this means that I’m frequently asked to meet groups of weavers and sewers and friends, and relatives at the exhibit, (when I’m available), give them a tour, and go out to lunch, or dinner, or in the case of my sister from Maryland, have a glorious weekend of family, including the sister from NY. We saw my exhibit, and then my studio and gardens, and then headed to NY to see the NY sister’s new home and gardens. We even got to walk across the Hudson River on the NY Rail Trail bridge over the Hudson. Something I’ve never done. Somebody has a photo of the three of us on the bridge, I forget who!

And I did manage to squeeze in a visit last Tuesday to the MET museum last week to catch the final days of the Weaving Abstraction in Ancient and Modern Art, and the new costume exhibit Sleeping Beauties. My head was full, all of my senses on fire, and I was home by lunch time.

It was really important for me to stay busy this year. My son is still deployed in the middle east, and I worry about him daily. Keeping busy has always been my antidote for stress. I still play with Montclair Early Music, and volunteer weekly at the Shakespeare Theatre of NJ as a stitcher in their costume shop. My life is exhausting, but I couldn’t be happier, because all of these things I chose to do.

Stay cool dear readers, it is summer out there and record heat doesn’t bode well for the future. Enjoy your gardens, or volunteer in one, and get your hands dirty. And when gardening season ends, there will always be fiber to play with…

Stay tuned…