On the Trail of Sail History – the Mycenaeans

When I demonstrate weaving at historic festivals, I try to get people to see how societies have relied on textiles to do so much more than just clothe them fashionably.  One example that helps people realize how textiles have impacted history is the idea that every sail had to be handspun, handwoven, and handsewn.


You can see how one sail is made up of narrower strips of cloth, with their edges overlapped.

I have used that example many times, but other than a memory of reading Forten the Sailmaker when I was a kid, that’s really all I knew about sails.  But last year when I was at the Maritime Museum of San Diego, touring the historic ships, I saw that one of the ships had a huge area two decks deep, set aside for storing the extra sails.

I was amazed at the amount of canvas the ship had to have on hand for emergencies.  It really sparked my curiosity – what fiber are sails made from?  Does sailcloth require special looms or techniques?  Were sailcloth weavers specialized workers?  Or did regular weavers weave up some sailcloth every now and then?  When was the switch to mechanization made?

lines stored aboard ship

My picture of the sail storage area did not come out, but this one of some of the extra ropes did.

If I had known how hard it would be to find answers to my questions, I would have asked for more information when I was at the museum.  When I got home I started to research, but the internet failed me completely!  Of course there is a ton of information on sailing ships – how they were engineered, how the woodworking was done, where the masts came from, how they figured out latitude and longitude (which I am finding totally fascinating too).  I could also find a lot of information on modern day sail-making with computer designs and Kevlar taffeta, but very little on the history of sails.  Even when I went to the Maine Maritime Museum, I couldn’t find out anything more.

In my reading I have found a few intriguing tidbits .  Of course, the more I find out, the more questions I have.

My first clue about sail history came from the book From Minos to Midas: Ancient Cloth Production in the Aegean and in Anatolia, by Brendan Burke, Volume 7 of the Ancient Textiles Series.   (I learned so much from this book about textile production in ancient times, but it is pretty scholarly – after I reread it a few more times so I understand it better, I will pass on some nuggets.)

Let’s start somewhere around 1350 BC with the Mycenaean civilization.  In Knossos on Crete, and in Pylos on the Peloponnesian peninsula, a group of scribes kept receipts of goods received and disbursed by the palace.  The emphasis in Knossos is on wool and sheep (about 100,000 sheep!) and in Pylos on flax and linen, but nobody is really sure why that is.

The scribes wrote their notes on clay tablets, in a syllabic script we now call Linear B. (If you would like to see what it looks like you can go to this chart – look at the first signs in the far left column, rows 6- 9, and you will see the signs for ewe, ram, she-goat, and he-goat.)

There are about a dozen ideograms that have something to do with textiles.  The one called *146 looks like this:


Linear B ideogram *146. It looks like warps dangling from the bottom to me!

Scholars know a lot about what kinds of textiles the different ideograms refer to, but about this one, they’re not even positive whether it means a linen cloth, a wool cloth, or both.  It might have been produced as a tribute or tax, offered in honor of a deity, or used for military purposes.

But here is what Brendan Burke thinks about it:

“…the Linear B evidence suggests that It is an unfinished linen cloth, manufactured throughout the Pylian kingdom, and sent to the palace for finishing by specialists….large amounts of plain linen cloth might have been used as sails for palace-sponsored overseas trade…The Linear B tablets do not provide much information on ship construction but the possibility that the Mycenaeans relied on the subordinate population to manufacture sails seems likely…The best way to ensure an adequate supply would have been to require cloth as a tax and have these staple goods converted into specialized cloths by specialists employed by the palace.”

(This is from the Kindle edition of the book, location 1675, because there are no page numbers.)

Okay, these are some things I had never considered before – that back more than 3000 years ago, people could have been required to weave fabric for their rulers, and that their rulers would then redistribute it or use it for the whole society.

But here are my questions – if you make someone weave some cloth, how much quality assurance do you have?  What happens if there is a bad year for flax or wool?  Whether this cloth was used for tents, tunics under soldiers’ armor, or sails, wouldn’t it have to be pretty uniform to work properly?

I will have to leave you here because in my real life, it is time to start a major household renovation.  But I hope to be back with a story about Viking sails next time!




My Imaginary Life as an Artist in Residence

Last year when we were in San Diego, we visited Cabrillo National Monument.  From Cabrillo Point you have stunning views both back toward the city of San Diego (“I can see my hotel from here!”), and out to the Pacific.  There is a wonderful mix of things to see – an old lighthouse and cozy lighthouse keeper’s cottage, tide pools and pelicans.

In the Visitors’ Center I noticed a call for Artists in Residence.  One of the requirements was to submit plans for a project that visitors could participate in while they were in the park.  I had never in my life thought of applying to be an artist in residence, but an idea for that community art project popped into my head while I was still reading the notice!

When you think “community art project”, you think “mural”, right?  But of course, if I were the Artist in Residence, I would want to take the opportunity to raise recognition of fiber art!  It could be a giant soft, transportable mural.

I would create a background quilt, based on the rock layers and waves at Cabrillo Point, and visitors could make tiny fiber art pieces based on things they noticed – shells, sea glass, anemones – to affix to it. The visitors could place their art pieces where they felt they belonged on the big quilt.  The trick would be to find a way to attach the little pieces easily, while its maker was still standing there.  No one wants to create something, and then miss its unveiling!

rock layers

I took more dramatic pictures, but this is the one that stays in my mind. I can see a background quilt based on these cliffs

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I know that the form that my mental design took came from a beautiful color study quilt done by Nadine Ruggles for a 2009 contest at the American Quilter’s Society.  The contest winners were published in a book, Burgoyne Surrounded: New Quilts from an Old Favorite.  Of course I can’t find the book now that I am mentioning it.  I will probably find it tomorrow.  But as I recall, Ruggles created hundreds of one-inch-square pieces in the colors of the color wheel, used Velcro to affix them to a white quilt, and arranged them in different patterns.  I have always loved art that can be rearranged, and her piece was gorgeous.

If I were to do something similar, not by myself, but with people of all different skill levels, I would have to have a very easy way of attaching our tiny pieces.  I remembered sheets of buttons I bought years ago – the buttons are wired onto the sheets, and the wires make a great design of their own.

button sheet

Another object I would like to capture in a quilt some day.

button wires

I love these colorful squiggles.

And, if I used a variety of wire to affix the mini-art pieces to the quilt, the back could look totally different from the front, but just as interesting.

But how could I set up the base quilt so that visitors could easily figure out where and how to attach their pieces of fiber art?  (Yes, I can worry about the logistics of an imaginary art project and the satisfaction level of fictional participants.  I won’t go into my cost-analysis and volunteer organization ideas.)

I remembered this set of tools my daughters gave me years ago:

eyelet tool set

You hammer a little hole through the cloth, set an eyelet, and flatten its edges.

All these factors were part of the idea that popped into my head when I read that call for artists.  I didn’t actually make anything though, until I read the Quilting Arts challenge on Art in the Park.

I made a background quilt based on the colors of the rock layers, and set eyelets in it in a grid pattern.  I made some tiny quilt squares (about 1 inch square) in more vivid colors, embellished them in some way, and wired them to the background.

As you might have guessed, my piece didn’t get chosen for publication, but that’s okay.  Once I finished it and took a good look at it, I realized that it does look like pieces I have seen published – probably like pieces that I clipped from magazines and glued into my idea books, even.  But I did not set out to copy any specific piece – I would say that while this is not brilliantly original, it is authentic, it came from ideas and inspirations that have been percolating in my mind for a while.

But I am very glad I made it.  Since it was for “other eyes,” I know I worked more carefully than I would have if it was just for myself.  I really love this eyelet idea, and I think I will do more with it.  This would be a fun project to have in a portable kit.

base quilt

The base quilt with the eyelets set. I chose quiet batiks and plain cream thread for quilting, so those elements wouldn’t fight with the mini-quilts.


Detail showing eyelet set in quilt.

quilt back

Each mini-quilt or bead has a wire going through its center, then through an eyelet. On the back the wires go through holes or shanks of buttons to be held in place.  The wire ends can be beaded as well.

I love the rearranging possibilities!

Ta-da!  I love the rearranging possibilities!

I hope the real Cabrillo Point Artist in Residence had as much fun with their project as I did with mine!

Layers of a Luxury Look

Layers of a Luxury Look

This week I accompanied my husband to a conference at a resort hotel in the Texas Hill Country.  Through a reservations mix-up, we ended up in one half of a luxury suite!  It was a huge corner room on the top floor, with its own foyer and two balconies – but it was the living/dining area of the suite, so it didn’t have a real bed, only a fold-out sofa bed with a thin mattress.  I had a roll-away bed brought in, but it was pretty bad too.

But the great views made up for the bad beds.

view of river pool

The view from one of the balconies.

The next morning, as I was sipping coffee and trying to wake up, I started noticing the textiles in the room.  Normally when I think “hotel room textiles,” I think of either huge swirly prints on shiny polyester in painfully outdated hotels, or of lovely plain white linens in mercifully updated hotels.  But this room was different.   I could see that the patterns were actually woven into the fabrics, instead of printed.  There were throw pillows that looked handmade, with fringes and tassels.  Everything coordinated, but nothing was matchy-matchy.

I got up and took a closer look at them all.  I realized that the design team’s goal had been to capture the feeling of the old ranch house that stood here before the resort – where possessions would have been brought in by different people, over decades.  But because they were designing for a hotel rather than a home, the team had to come up with cost-effective techniques and commercial fabrics.

hotel exterior

This is the outside of the hotel. The limestone white and sky blue colors are repeated throughout the decor inside.

upholstery fabric

This upholstery fabric was on two armchairs. The barn red accent color is repeated throughout the room, but in different patterns.  It’s pretty boring, but still, I like the square and rectangle pattern.  I could do something with that idea.

dining chair upholstery

This is the dining chair fabric. The nubby cream yarn in the simple pattern gives it a special touch, while also hiding snags and wear!


The curtains had the look of old, worn brocade, with tassels on the valence, but as I looked closer…

block print curtain

…I realized that the fabric is actually printed to look faded and just a little tattered…

valance trim

…and the “tassels” are actually wooden beads.

The really labor-intensive fabrics were used as accents in the throw pillows.


This pillow echoes the curtain pattern.

bead trim

The bead trim also repeats the trim on the curtains.  The red threads had a band of wire crocheted through them – maybe to provide stiffness to the loops?

bench fabric

The same fabric is used on a bench across the room, but in the opposite colorway.  Or is it just the back?

chair and pillow

This chair ties together many of the colors in the room. This pillow has red trim too, and the design looks to be hand-embroidered…

trees on pillow

…but it is really woven in.

lamb design

I have never seen a weave structure that leaves the little shadow effect around the edges of the design. I think it gives a bit of a three-dimensional effect.

I didn’t see any of these same fabrics used anywhere else in the hotel, but all the fabrics in other areas would also coordinate with these. I enjoyed seeing the creative ways that the design team gave some new twists to decorating tradition.


We Interrupt Spring Cleaning…

We Interrupt Spring Cleaning…

As I have mentioned before, after our daughters grew up and moved out, my husband and I downsized from our typical suburban home, into a cottage that his family had built on their farm.  The cottage was already full of furniture and other useful items that his family members had left here.  My ongoing project is to reduce our total number of possessions, but it is really hard, because we keep coming across more really cool stuff.

This weekend, I planned to do some spring cleaning, but my thoughtful husband forwarded me an email from a local auction house – they were having an estate sale, and it featured “antique linens.”

Usually this term is used very loosely, to mean “we have three stained polyester tablecloths and a Care Bears bedspread,” but I thought I should go look, just to be nice.

It turned out that the deceased’s mother had been an antique dealer, and there were about 25 boxes of actual, vintage linens!  Most of the items had been prepared for sale, so they were cleaned, folded, and tagged with their measurements. There were only about two other interested buyers, so I ended up with 6 good size boxes full.

boxes of vintage linens

My haul.

I have spent today cataloging my finds, and I ended up with over 300 items, at a cost of 14 cents each!  Here are a few of my favorites:

dogwood towels

Handwoven towels. Weft inlay creates a little dogwood design.

crocheted trim

This dresser scarf has very heavy crocheted trim on a fabric that is almost as light as cheese cloth.  That caused the fabric to tear, but the trim is the real treasure.

trim detail

But look at how the crocheted bands interweave with each other. That’s an idea I can use somewhere!

Victorian trim

This fragment was saved for its beautiful pin tucks and lace insertions.

It’s a little sad to see someone’s possessions just thrown into boxes willy-nilly and hauled out for everyone to see.  But I think this antique dealer would be happy to know her treasures went to someone who  appreciates them, and in the event my textiles end up the same way, I would be glad to pass them on to another textile lover.

There weren’t any real show stoppers in the boxes, but I did get a lot of beautiful cotton and linen items in useable condition.  There were a few where the fabric is beyond saving, but the trims are worth keeping.  And the ones that are just “run-of-the-mill,”  I will use in other creations.

I have been to the standard auctions where you sit in a chair and hold up your number to bid.  This auction was much more informal, so I thought I’d explain how it runs in case you are interested in auctions and find yourself at a similar one.

Before bidding you go to the counter to get your bid number.  You can’t bid without one, and you might think, “Good, that will keep me from spending money,” but it will also keep you from snapping up a bargain!

All the items are set up in rows.  You walk around and look at everything to decide what you want.  (I make a mental note of how much I am willing to spend for an item.)

The auctioneer walks to each item and everybody trails along (making it very hard to see).  If it is a big item, like a refrigerator, he auctions that off by itself.

Small items are grouped together – there could be ten paintings together, or ten silk plants, or twenty little bags of costume jewelry.  The  bidding starts, and when it stalls out and the auctioneer knows he is not going to get any more money for that item, he gives the highest bidder her choice.  If she won with a $20 bid, she can take as many of the items as she wants from that category at that per item price.  Let’s say she takes two paintings out of a group of ten – the auctioneer will then let the second place bidder get as many as he wants, at whatever his last bid was, say $15.  If that bidder also takes two, there are six left, and the bidding starts over.  (The highest and second bidder can rejoin at a low bid at that point.  They are not tied to their earlier bids.)

if you bid on a couple of things in a category, the auctioneer starts to remember you and give you a chance to get a bid in.

As the price drops lower, the auctioneer might offer anyone the chance to choose a bag or box for a certain amount – then you just kind of grab, and tell the auctioneer’s notetaker your number and how many you got.  Finally, he might lump the remainder of items all together to get rid of them.  This is how I ended up with so many linens – I got the box I wanted for $12.50, and then as the bidding came down to “take any box for $5,” I just had to help them out.

Your items are marked with your number on a piece of masking tape and placed on a table.  Little tickets with your winning bids are run to the office.  At any time, you can go pay for what you have purchased, and then load your treasures to go home.

And then try to find a spot for them in your house…


A Little Commemoration Here, Please

I went to get stamps today, and chose the Building a Nation series, which features black-and-white photos of workers from the early 1900s.  When I got a good look at them, I was so happy!  In amongst the construction workers and steel workers, there were two women textile workers!

I got to thinking that these must be the first textile workers ever on US stamps.  And then I tried to remember any textile-related stamps at all.

I could remember a series of four quilt stamps of the basket pattern, and I thought I remembered some Navajo rugs, and maybe a spinning wheel from back at the Bicentennial…

So when I got home, I did a little research.

I started with the US Postal Service website, and found out that for this series, the stamp designer used mostly the photographs of Lewis Hines.  You might have heard of him in conjunction with his work documenting child laborers in the early 1900s, or from his work documenting the construction of the Empire State Building in 1930.  For more than 25 years, he took thousands of pictures of ordinary people.

In this set of stamps, one of the textile workers pictured is creating a hat, the other is drawing in warp threads for weaving.  Rather than just insert the image of those stamps here (which I’m guessing would be frowned upon), I decided to find more of Hines’ images of textile workers.  The Library of Congress is a treasure trove, with over 5000 of Hines’ images online in an easily searchable database.

These three pictures are similar to the one that was made into a stamp.  They all show stages of “dressing the loom”, or preparing all the threads for weaving.

Lewis Hines photo from 1916 in Massachusetts- The worker is drawing each warp end through a heddle – working with four heddle frames (or shafts) at once. The warp threads have all been measured and wound around a giant beam, like a spool of thread, only with thousands of loose ends instead of one.  The worker has to keep each warp end in its proper place so it doesn’t twist and break.


Here you can clearly see each thread coming from an enormous beam – the girl is drawing one warp at a time through wire heddles on shafts. This Lewis Hines photo has no notes on date or location, but I would bet money that this is at a different mill than the first picture.


This mill worker is also drawing-in – it looks to me like the warp threads have already come through the heddles, and now this worker has to draw each one through a reed, to space them properly.


(A quick aside – If you would like more information on how the weaving process works, you can click on the Extremely Basic Fiber Processing tab up top – I did a lot of work on that page, not realizing that WordPress doesn’t publish new pages in the same way as posts.  Even if you don’t need any weaving info, click on it anyway – it’s just sitting there, cold and lonely.)

Okay, so after hours of wandering through the virtual stacks at the Library of Congress, I went back to the Postal Service to find out how often textiles and textile people have been featured on stamps.  I used the  timeline feature on their website, and here is everything I could find:

1940 – Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin.

1971 – a sheep stamp, to commemorate the 450th anniversary of the introduction of sheep into North America.

1978 – quilt stamps, a series of four, one pattern in four different colorways – Basket pattern.  They look more like a pointy coffee cup than a basket to me.

(I don’t know why macrame did not get a stamp in the 70s!)

1986 – Navajo rugs, series of four.  These were big, shiny and gorgeous with lots of red.

1987 – lace-making, two stamps.  Very nice detail.

2001 – Amish quilts, a series of four – Lone Star, Sunlight and Shadows, Diamond in the Square, Double Ninepatch.  These were also big stamps, with lots of color.

2005 – Rio Grande blankets, a series of four.  A lot like the Navajo rugs stamps.

2006  Quilts of Gee’s Bend – a series of ten! Gorgeous inspirational colors.

2007 – Holiday Knits, a series of four.  After several series of big beautiful textile stamps, it was like a trip back into the sad 1970s.  They were small one-color patterns that looked like graph paper designs.  If the stamps were made from items that had actually been knit up, it was hard to tell; they just looked pixilated.  (My husband says they weren’t popular because the bumpy yarn kept getting caught in the sorting machines.)

2011 – 2 sewing machines (on one stamp) are featured in the series Pioneers of American Industrial Design

2012 – Aloha Shirts , a series of five.

2012 – cotton makes it onto the stamp of Texas, in Flags of Our Nation Part Six.  I had no part in determining this, but I like it!

And that’s it!  I was right, no textile worker has been featured before. (Would you count Eli Whitney?  I wouldn’t.  He was an inventor.)

It looks to me like we owe some stamps to the spinners, crocheters, felters, surface designers, and embroiderers, and really, the knitters deserve two more sets to make up for those ugly ones in 2007.  I can think of a lot more I’d like to see – how about a yarn-bombing stamp?  or fiber animals, like alpacas, angora goats, and angora rabbits?

Do you know of any I missed?  Those of you not from the States – does your country do a better job of honoring their craftspeople with stamps?  Let me know!

Working on a Reader’s Challenge

I have always wanted to enter a reader’s challenge and this week I finally did.  Quilting Arts magazine had a challenge to create a mini-quilt with the theme of “Art in the Park,” and I had an idea from our trip to San Diego last year, so I decided to try.

Now that the “quiltlet” is done, I think it is pretty, but not exactly original.  But I learned so much from working on a small scale for once.  (And if it’s not chosen, I’ll show it here!)

craft supplies

How can I fit all this stuff into an 8″ x 8″ square? It barely fits in my house!

Working in small scale made me think harder about how all the elements work with each other and with the whole.  I limited myself to one kind of fabric, one thread color, and only two kinds of embellishment to keep the quilt cohesive.  But I spent a lot of time experimenting with composition and color placement before I got an arrangement that is interesting and balanced.

I think I could have made a crib quilt in the same amount of time, but I would not have learned as much!


Maine-ly Textiles

Maine-ly Textiles

I know many of you are sick to death of winter, but living in Texas, knowing that days – weeks – months of 100 degree heat are about to descend upon me, I enjoy a chance to shiver a little.  Somehow I feel that if I can bank enough coolness into my system, it will tide me through the next six months of heat.

So when my husband had a business trip to Portland, Maine, I was happy to tag along.  I didn’t have a chance to do a lot of research before this trip, but that’s okay – we have a basic travel template of how we spend our time, and we both enjoy whatever we see, without worrying about what we might be missing.

We got to Portland Sunday evening, and it was still light.  If you ask me, Portland has a perfect layout – the historic area is on a peninsula, easy to get to, but away from the main highway.  As you are trying to find where you are going, you don’t have that feeling that you are holding up traffic and stopping the locals from getting someplace important.  After we checked in to our hotel, we wandered around – there was so much to see and lots of restaurants to choose from.  We picked a pub and had our first sample of locally-brewed beers and lobster melts!

We only had two days to visit, but we saw some wonderful sights. On Monday, we went north to Bath. On the drive up, I was surrounded by so much Maine gorgeousness – granite, birches, solid white houses and sturdy brick buildings – that I couldn’t choose what to photograph, and ended up without many landscape pictures.

In Bath, we visited the Maine Maritime Museum.  Many of the outside areas were closed because it was still icy, but the inside had interesting displays.  I managed to find lots of textile-related items.

shoreline and snow

Quintessential Maine – everything I hoped for!  This is the view from the Maine Maritime Museum.

1824 figurehead

I love it when fashion is captured in a dated work of art.

umbrella swift

This umbrella swift was made from whalebone!

Our next stop was just for me.

Halcyon Yarn building

So understated outside…

store front

…Yes, look closer, it’s 12 School Street – Halcyon Yarn!

yarn on shelves

– home to all this.  There are about 12 more shelves like this one, stuffed full of yarny goodness.   Maybe more – I was too dazzled to count.

I have ordered yarn from this place, Halcyon Yarn, for about 30 years!  but never thought I would actually get to visit. It was just as wonderful as I had imagined – so many choices, so organized.  I limited myself to one cone of cotton, and three magazines, because after all, I was going to have to carry it all home, and they do ship – but I just had to buy something in person.

We checked out some local galleries and antique shops, went further north to the Owls Head Transportation Museum, and then went back to Portland for another dose of microbrewery beer and lobster rolls.

I was loving the cold weather, especially since I was only out in it for 10 or 15 minutes at a time.  But what was driving me crazy was my lack of a system for dealing with my cold weather gear!  I couldn’t work out a comfortable arrangement of my purse strap and camera strap around the hood on my coat.  Also the hood kept flying off in the wind.  (It wasn’t until the last day that I figured out that that hood has Velcro and elastic loop closings to help it fit closely – I have never needed those features before!)  Whenever I go somewhere, I am used to keeping track of my keys, wallet, phone, reading glasses, and camera – it’s bad enough when I have to add “room key and map” to my checklist – the addition of “hat, gloves, scarf” was too much for me to remember.  As a result, I kept setting things down and forgetting them.  I could have used some cargo pants with big pockets.

Tuesday was the day my husband had business meetings, so I spent most of the day in the Portland Museum of Art, soaking up inspiration.  It is a lovely museum with a good variety of artists, eras, and styles represented.  I especially liked one gallery of American art, where paintings, furniture, and decorative items were displayed all together.

From an upstairs window at the museum, I saw a little used bookstore, so I headed over there.  The owner was a little rude, but I did find a textile book treasure.  It’s called The Heritage of Cotton, and it is unlike any of my other vintage textile books, because it actually shows examples of items made from cotton, from around the world, instead of just British and American cotton machinery or portraits of inventors.

reading material

Three magazines from Halcyon Yarn, and a 1948 book, The Heritage of Cotton.

Peruvian textiles

Plate of Peruvian textiles from The Heritage of Cotton.

I decided to walk back to the hotel.  I quickly figured out I was a little lost, and I had already lost one glove and my phone that morning, due my aforementioned lack of a system.  But I wasn’t worried, because I was on a peninsula.  At some point I would end up at the waterfront, and then I could find my way from there.  I’ve been lost in Athens, Rome, Amsterdam, Denver, Rome again, Las Vegas – I really never mind getting lost when I’m walking.  It’s a great way to see more of the area.  (There were taxis, but I figured I would get in, tell the driver my hotel, and then find out it was only a block away.)

Finally I got back.  My husband was already in the room, as was my phone!  I don’t know where I had left it, but the housekeeper had found it.  We had a very late lunch (more local brew and some lobster stew!) and then had time to explore the neighborhood.  And we found this!

book store shelves

Do you hear the angels singing?

It was close to closing but the owner told us to take our time.  Along with books, there were old maps, prints, and all kinds of little odds and ends.  This is Carlson and Turner Antiquarian Books, my idea of heaven on earth. I found some wonderful books, including a two-volume set by Alice Morse Earle, Two Centuries of Costume in America.  Here are some chapter titles:  A Vain Puritan Grandmother, The Venerable Hood (if only I had had that to read before wrestling with my hood!), and Pattens, Clogs, and Goloe-Shoes.

I had really been hoping that since Maine was settled so long before Texas, I would uncover a very old handwritten weaving notebook stashed in some dark corner, and the store owner would say, “Oh, that old thing?  Those are a dime a dozen around here.  I’ll be glad to get it out of here.”  That did not happen, but these books are a pretty good consolation prize.

book spines

Yummy books and a textile print stamp from India at the top of the stack.

book cover

Don’t you love the artwork on this 1949 book cover?

gown illustration

Illustration from 1903 book, Two Centuries of Costume in America.

1775 illustration

1775 illustration from Two Centuries of Costume in America.

After one more delightful evening (local brews and crab cakes, in a daring change of cuisine), we headed back to Houston.  It is already 80 degrees here, but I am hoping that my mental images of beautiful Maine will keep me feeling cooler this summer.  And now I’m off to find out what Goloe Shoes are!

Lessons from Skilled Work

Just in time for National Craft Month, I read an essay with the lovely title, “Metaphysical Implications of Function, Material, and Technique in Craft,”  by Howard Risatti*.  It’s in a 1998 exhibition catalog, Skilled Work: American Craft in the Renwick Gallery, from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art.  It’s a long essay, 22 pages, so I can just skim the surface here, but it has helped me structure my thoughts on art and craft and their place in my life.

Real Life

First, Risatti points out that craft offers real experience, in contrast to “the contrived needs and pseudo-events that bombard us on TV and in the movies.”

In the postmodern world, so the argument goes, the natural hardly exists, and reality itself is always mediated in some way….Whatever remains of the “real” world is generally experienced secondhand, predigested via the media, TV, and the movies so that “real” life experience tends to be overwhelmed by lifestyle images….

Craft offers an important way to negotiate this predicament and return to experiences that are real – real because necessary, direct, and genuinely meaningful.  (p. 34)

Origins of Craft

Risatti explains that craft objects originated from naturally occurring objects that humans found useful.  He sorts these objects into three basic categories -  containers, shelters, and supports (such as seats and tables).  In other words, thousands of years ago when we saw a lake as a container for water, and realized we could create a more convenient version, we made sure that it met our other needs, by being an easy size to carry, an easy shape to set down, with a surface that was comfortable to touch, and so on.

Because craft is based on natural materials, it is constrained by the laws of physics, by what each particular material can do.

…materials are treated in ways that coax out the intrinsic properties of the material.  In a sense, this is a dialogue with nature conducted through technique and material. (p. 43)

Risatti tends to emphasize the impact of the artisan, but that phrase, “a dialogue with nature”, made me think more about nature’s strong contribution to new ideas.  I know when I notice something in nature like an interesting vine, I think, “you know what would be good to do with that…”


I made this basket about 30 years ago, with grapevines from here on the farm as the main frame.

basket detail

My favorite thing about it is the way the reed wraps around the grapevine at different angles.

Because each craft object has to be functional, it ends up following a basic pattern that is common across eras and cultures.  So a seat is a seat is a seat, and we can recognize its basic function whether it’s from King Tut’s tomb or a log cabin.

But craft is also called the “applied arts.”  It is human nature to express oneself somehow, within those constraints.  Techniques and traditions have built up within each craft, helping artisans bring out the intrinsic qualities of their materials.  These skills can build bridges across cultures.

warp-faced carrying bag

Natural, functional, and expressive.

Craft in Contrast with Fine Art and Mass-Production

Risatti then contrasts the functional nature of craft with the more intangible nature of the fine arts.

While physical needs do not change over the lifetime of an individual or over the course of centuries, psychic needs do change in reaction to altered social, political, and economic situations,  These changes are reflected in the fine arts.  (p. 35)

..the practitioners of the fine arts work to overcome the limitations of their materials, whereas those engaged in the applied arts work in concert with their materials.  (p. 38, emphasis his)

The fine artist is an ‘image’ maker, whereas the applied artist is an ‘object’ maker. (p. 40)

He also contrasts craft with modern mass-produced objects, which are created based on cheapness and machine efficiency, regardless of true functionality for humans.  Risatti gives the example of packing boxes, which are cheap to manufacture, ship, and store, but which are awkward for humans to grasp and hold.  People have come to view an individually made craft object as:

  …a quaint historical curiosity, an anachronism, while ‘real’ functional objects are engineered by designers…the value of all objects tends to be based on their perceived efficiency. (p.47)

And So Where Does This Leave Us?

This essay really helped me figure out where I am in the whole art/craft continuum, and the area I would like to focus on.

You may take issue with the way that Risatti defines and separates “art” from “craft”, (although I am greatly summarizing the essay, and he does go into it in much more depth) and I think for a lot of people,   the two blend seamlessly.  But after reading this I would put myself more on the craft side – I prefer handmade objects to mass-produced, and I enjoy spending some time and effort to make them.  I do feel that they give meaningful experiences to my life.  But I guess that modern value on efficiency has affected me too, because I like to make simple things with a useful purpose – I admire masterpieces, but I don’t have a desire to make them myself.

The aspect of craft that I value most is the way it provides a bridge to people in different times, cultures, and circumstances.  I can speak the same language as other craftspeople, and be inspired by their individual traits of expression.

warp pick-up in Peruvian bag

I know how the weaver did this! I couldn’t do it so skillfully, but I could figure out the steps involved.

When I look at a medieval weaving illustration and think, “I know what she is doing!”  I can feel that connection across the centuries.  When I read stories of sharing textile joy across cultures and language barriers, like this account by Verónica, I wish I could have been there too.

I am sure that any hobby or interest can be shared this way, but figuring out that this is my favorite aspect of craft – this bridge of sharing ideas and skills – helps me decide where to focus my time and effort.  I don’t have to have the best of all possible materials or equipment, because I am most interested in just sampling different techniques. I will always be willing to give an informal weaving or dyeing lesson, because passing on the skill is the part I like best!

I don’t often see essays on the value of art and craft – I got so many ideas from this one!  If you have any other good books or articles on a philosophy of art to suggest, please let me know.

* I just looked him up and he is professor emeritus of art, craft, and critical theory at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Texas Botanist Mary Sophie Young

For my celebration of Women’s History Month, I am officially appointing myself Founder of the Mary Sophie Young Fan Club.

I first heard of Dr. Mary Sophie Young back in 2006, when I was working as a seasonal park ranger at Big Bend National Park, and I was putting together a presentation on Women of the Big Bend. In a book on women naturalists*, one short excerpt was from a journal Young kept on a plant collecting trip to West Texas in the summer of 1914.  People back at home thought I was brave just to drive in the desert in summer, and live without television for 8 weeks, so Young’s account of exploring West Texas on foot for six weeks really impressed me.  I loved her self-sufficiency, adaptability, and sense of humor.

It has now been 100 years since her first camping trip, and I have never been able to find much more information on her, but even the little I know is worth sharing.

Young was an instructor in botany and taxonomy at the University of Texas, starting in 1910.  She was also put in charge of the herbarium, and spent much of her time hiking around Austin, looking for samples of local flora to add to the University’s collection.  Since this was the era before cars, getting to all the varied regions of the Austin area was a challenge for her, but having been raised with brothers, she was used to tramping around without rest.

She was 41 when she headed to the Davis Mountains in West Texas to collect plants.  Since it was not considered proper for a woman to travel alone, she went accompanied by 17-year-old Carey Tharp, the younger brother of a colleague. This colleague, B. C. Tharp, later fact-checked and edited the journal of the trip, and published it in its entirety in The Southwestern Historical Quarterly in 1961 and 1962.

The journal opens on August 2, 1914, the day of arrival in Marfa,Texas, by train.  Mary had spent $8.00 for a suit and $6.00 for a pair of shoes, and that seems to be what she wore for the whole trip.  She took a day and a half in Marfa scouting out the best arrangements for travel.  It seems like this is something you would do long before arriving at your jump-off point, but I think that Mary Young was so adaptable, that specific arrangements just didn’t matter to her that much.

Marfa courthouse

The Marfa courthouse was built in 1886, so Mary Sophie Young would have seen it.

view from cupola

If she had gone up in the cupola, she would have seen her destination on the horizon.

They ended up buying some burros and then agreed to buy a wagon, sight unseen.  I love her description of the buggy:

When the carriage arrives, it strikes us dumb with admiration…The lines are rope, and there are a few scraps of strap and wire about the harness here and there to add variety. The buggy is without a top, though it had one once, and there is just enough paint to show that it once was painted black.  There were once rubber tires, but now only the places where they used to be remain as evidence of former splendor.  However, money was never better spent than the ten dollars on that precious buggy.

The journal doesn’t talk much about which plant she collected when; it is about the day-to-day logistics of the trip – catching burros, setting up a base camp in an abandoned ranch house, finding the way home after taking a wrong turn in a canyon.  It is also about the beauty of West Texas – the silver-blue bark of alligator juniper trees, the white boulders that look like small solitary houses.

It is about five o’clock now.  The “lonely” time is beginning.  The air is very transparent and very still and everything glistens.  There is something of that uncanny feeling of the consciousness of inanimate things.

And this link will take you to the Google Earth Tour of the place that inspired that description -

Mount Livermore

From time to time, Mary would send Carey to various ranch headquarters to try to buy more food, so they would be able to stay out camping longer.  Most of the ranchers were generous but didn’t have much to spare, so our scientists also tried to supplement their stores by hunting:

Well, we had jack rabbit for supper!  It is good exercise to eat jack rabbit – it gives you an appetite.  Jack rabbit should always be served with tooth picks.  Jack rabbit is economical, one piece two inches in diameter and half an inch thick will last an average man all day if he chews constantly and his jaws can stand the strain… I am going to try stewing some of what is left.  (We have had four meals already and it isn’t half cooked yet and we threw away some.)  Maybe if we soak it all night and boil it all day we shall be able to chew the juice, but I don’t know.

She knew how to make the best of a situation!

Young took camping/collecting trips during summer vacation each of the next four years – one trip was in the Panhandle but the others were all in West Texas. In early 1919, she died of cancer at the age of 46.

I can find four of her plant samples in the University of Texas digital database.  She collected hundreds, and was known for giving every one to the university, never keeping any for herself, so I would love to know where the others are.

Brickellia brachyphylla A. Gray var. terlinguensis Flyr
The image is linked to its source at the University of Texas.

Mary wasn’t perfect – if you do read the journal, be aware that there are a few casual remarks that we would judge as bigoted today.

But I think she should be remembered and celebrated for the way she went beyond what women were thought capable of, and for her exploring spirit.

* I read the journal excerpt in a collection of women’s nature writings called American Women Afield: Writings by Pioneer Women Naturalists, by Marcia Myers Bonta, 1995, Texas A&M University Press.  That was only 9 pages long.  The full journal at the Southwestern Historical Quarterly site is about 60 pages long.

First Finish for 2014

There is just nothing better than the feeling of finishing a big project.


My first finish for 2014! (Okay, it still needs a little hand-stitching, but close enough to count.)

This quilt started out to be given to a county home for teen-age boy runaways.  I wanted it to be modern and masculine, and it started out as a disappearing nine-patch with all shirting fabrics.

In my last post I was contemplating what fabric to use for borders – I had plenty of a tone-on-tone smoky blue that I had not used anywhere else in the quilt, and I thought it might call too much attention to itself.

I had some gorgeous brown and gold material that I was saving to make something for myself – it reminded me of men’s ties, so I thought it would go with all that shirting fabric.  It was what the quilt needed, so I cut it up and used it for borders.  I hope I can find it again.

Then after searching some more, I found one yard of the smoky blue/gray fabric that was already in the quilt, so I cut that up for the binding.

quilt blocks and borders

I had just enough of this smoky blue fabric to use for the binding.

I have done one other single-size quilt with free motion quilting, but on that one I used the walking foot, and I did two crib-sized pieces and then put them together.  This is the first time I have quilted a single-size quilt all in one piece, and the first time I used a free motion foot.

I tried a Super Slider too, to see if it would help me move the quilt around more smoothly.  The results were so-so for me. I felt like the quilt would hang up just a little on the edges of the Super Slider, and I didn’t like having to untape it to put a new bobbin in.

About halfway through, I bought some Gorilla Grip gloves in the gardening section (only $5), and they worked like magic!  They are very lightweight and flexible – I can even thread the needle with them on.  I don’t want to say they adhere to the quilt because that sounds like they would make the quilt itself sticky – it was more like they helped me levitate the quilt.  I felt like I was pushing the quilt around on a surface of ice instead of metal, and I had even removed the Super Slider.  This was the first time I felt like I could just “think at” the quilt and it would go where I wanted it to.  It’s nice to feel like I have found the combination of quilting variables that works for me.

barn with quilt

When I took the quilt up to the barn to photograph, I noticed the beautiful shadow of the oak tree – inspiration for a new quilt!

I think too much color has slipped in to make this acceptable to any teen-age boy, so I don’t think I will be giving it to the county.    I’m not sure what I’ll do with it, but I am so happy it’s done!