This is a collection of my thoughts on being an artisan. For all that I smiled and said “Thank you!” when customers raved about our ‘art,’ I’ve never lost track of Thoreau’s definition. Remember him, the fellow who wore his whiskers under his chin?
The Artist is he who detects and applies the law from observation of the works of Genius, whether of man or nature. The Artisan is he who merely applies the rules which others have detected. There has been no man of pure Genius; as there has been none wholly destitute of Genius.
I added the italics. I didn’t invent looms, thread or weaving, but I can make all three, and use them. I appreciate a great American genius has left me not wholly destitute of talent!
Several years ago I had the burning desire, to quote my grandson, to put a weaving studio back together, and I did. How satisfying to run the threads through my hands another time, thread up my trusty, utilitarian, towels, check tension, then sit and mindlessly weave, my ears tuned to music, books, lectures de jour.
How easily it all came together, how easily it all flew apart, as you may recall. But in the middle, stacks of towels. The kitchen towel drawer was topped off, as were children and friends. And still the stack grew. What to do, what to do.
In a bit of genius, I sent them on the wind, into the universe.
One hallmark of the clothing we wove was folks’ reactions. They first would touch. That’s easy. Then wrap their arms around jackets. I really was selling “soft”.
Towels would have stood the same test, but didn’t get it. They’re towels, for crying out loud. They live in a drawer, and are snatched out to dry dishes, wipe up counter messes, wipe the baby’s face, wipe the floor, dragged around by a foot. Towels are not sexy. They’re utilitarian.
Utility! Aha. My towels are the epitome of utility because they actually absorb moisture. I use ring spun cotton. That stuff I had to find all over again; sweater mills are gone, and the thread spun overseas is softened mechanically. Ring spun is stretched and compacted over and over. It is denser, and its ends are softened. It’s heavier than other spinning methods. It makes your best tee shirts. And the best towel.
Years ago I wove towels to experiment with weaving structure. Lots of open threads in the weave make towels super absorbent. But, they wear out too fast, or meet untimely ends in the washer or dryer. I came across and tried “draughts to increase journeyman ability” in old Dover reprints of fabric structure we barely know the names of these days. Plain, matt, rib, basket, twill.
Then I found the most clever structure, put together by the utilitarian genius of Shakers. It’s a plain, twill, grouped combination. I call it the Shaker Towel. All the action is in the railroad tracks that run the length. It’s a cord group, held together enough by the plain weave and twill sections. Then the plain weave, twill checks take over, and absorb more moisture. Or baby spit or kool aid. It’s just a damn fine towel.
But, no weaver would make towels to earn a living. Like everyone else, we set out to earn a fair return for our labor and material. Who would pay market value of a handwoven towel. They’re a loss leader, or a give away.
Those days are way behind me. I again can weave for the pure pleasure of watching the work unfold, the colors drift down the warp beam, the sunshine outlining the cat in the window. I cannot weave as fast, and I don’t care. I still can make piles of towels, then send them to the universe. It makes me happy. May we all live long enough.
Today I hemmed orange and garnet towels. I took the fabric from the loom, fulled it, cut it, hemmed it. I also gave some garnet towels to my card playing friends. Denim towels are on the loom now. See the difference between the woven fabric and the finished towel that has been fulled? Part of the magic. I think I’ll do purple next.