Monday, February 19, 2018

Cultural appropriation and destruction, as it show up in textiles

Among the many failings of our European hegemony has been the idea of Empire, both state and religious, in geographic terms in early history and in economic terms now. If your culture is great, then it will be greater when you force it on another population. The belief in manifest destiny has led to the domination of white culture across the globe, with an incredible myopia about the consequences.

Speaking to a good friend at a party back in the 90s, the discussion turned to products beginning to be made in new factories in Africa and SE Asia. This friend is a boomer male, white, well educated, of old established New England heritage. Probably socially liberal and a libertarian in other ways, but not vocal about it. But this was a party. He was telling us about his new plastic home improvement product being made in an unnamed country in Africa. He said how much good it was doing the “African villagers” to have employment.  As a textiles person, I knew that traditional textile crafts in many countries in Africa are being discarded due to the demands of factory jobs. What were originally handmade, culturally symbolic garments of tribal affiliations and histories were being replaced with US used clothing that is shipped over there in bales and sold for pennies. An immense part of their culture is destroyed in the process. I mention this cultural loss to him and he says, smiling, "you can teach it back to them!" 

My jaw dropped. 

How could I possibly know the millennia of meaning that is woven into those fabrics? Every thread is a meditation on their lives - they take their blessings from the earth around them. There is plenty to do, but time to do it. Family and tribe are inseparable from their identity and everyone in the family is involved in the textile process. Their patterns are handed down, from mother to daughter and father to son, for generations untold. They wear their heritage proudly and other communities know and honor them and their history. The rich results are now familiar - sold to the wealthy in the western world, but too dear for the tribal population -  in Ghanian strip weaving, also known as Kente cloth, and Mudcloth dyeing from Mali, just to name a few from the African continent.* 

Textile collectors know the term “trade blankets.”  Those are produced mainly by Pendleton, with Indian motifs interpreted by white mill designers. The mill proudly claims that Native Americans use them at their pow wows and ceremonies and that the blankets represent “a visual statement of Indianness.”** The truth is, trade blankets were once produced by the native population for their own use, but sold outside the trading posts to the white settlers when the colonizers began to dominate the west. A post owner suggested changes to the Native colors and designs - again, traditional designs and colors, handed down through the generations with cultural meaning - that would make them more attractive to European eyes. Needing the money in those desperate times, the Native weavers made the changes and now, those white-approved patterns are the tradition.  The mills reinterpret the patterns and sell them back to their originators, a perfect capitalist success story. The ancient symbols that once were woven into their blankets are all but lost to history. 

This in a nutshell is what has happened over and over again, this genial paternalism that assumes that whites will determine what is valuable to keep and what can be allowed to the 'conquered' indigenous people. For they have been conquered, just as native peoples in every continent have been conquered. These days, we do it economically. The villagers' landscape is being re-shaped to fit global interests and they are being pushed inexorably into an economy and culture that holds no meaning to them. Abruptly changing to a western lifestyle has led to depression, crime, domestic violence, drugs and alcohol abuse. 

The spread of white European empire has been ruinous for indigenous cultures, without exception. With the 21st century dawning, I think we will see many cultures re-blooming, as the white hegemony fails and indigenous cultures reclaim their heritage, without our help, thank you. Those stories are starting to be retold. You can see it in the upsurge in Native tribal political actions and in the huge success of the Black Panther movie. These groups see the world in a radically different way that we can’t hope to understand without stopping and truly seeing its value.  Empire is not the way to the future but a dead-end, meaningless churn of commerce and exploitation. Community and connection to the earth can be a better path. Maybe we should listen to them instead. 

* A delightful compendium of the best known textile traditions of the African continent with lots of images:
and in-depth articles on the specific techniques mentioned:

**For a truly stomach turning read, see this justification of Pendleton’s cultural appropriation:

Thursday, August 11, 2016

On the subject of Yard Sales

My Anything Fiber Sale table, piled with goodies - cheap!

My mother would laugh so hard if she knew of my current involvement with one rather large yard sale, of which we all know. She was a yard sale queen. She roped me into helping her and it was always fun because she made it fun, but one thing drove me crazy. She would put out her knick knacks to sell and price them too high - $20 - 30. Worse, she’d put out her jelly jars and old dirty ashtrays and mark them at $2-5 each. Mom’s addiction to knick knacks was legendary and she would buy up other people’s stuff and resell it at her own sale with a hefty markup. Maybe there was a budding merchant instinct in her, but she rarely sold much of anything. I thought at the time she didn’t want to let her things go, but couldn’t admit it. 

She also had a lot of expensive fine craft objects, paintings and other nice decorative things, quite a collection. Every closet was filled with boxes and bags of stuff, many things in their original packaging, never opened. Mom confided in me once that she planned to sell it all if she needed the money. Of course, that was relevant since she was an older divorced woman. That was the moment when I saw that these objects held a protective power for her. In the end, she didn’t sell any of it, and I had to clear out her house and get rid of all the wonderful furnishings and decorative stuff. I thought she would probably be sad about it, but she made me executor, so she had to know what I'd do. 

And, naturally I had a yard sale, though it was now an estate sale, so we had a good turnout. I marked everything to sell. A nickel. A dime, A quarter. The most expensive thing was around $10 but nearly everything else was a dollar or less. It was a madhouse, a buying frenzy the likes of which I had never seen before. People were bidding on each box as I carried it out of the house, sight unseen. We got rid of nearly everything, though my sisters and I still have a lot of her art and craft collection. 

In a way, I had my revenge on my mom for her cautious yard sale pricing, and felt vindicated and not a little self-righteous. But really, there was a thrill in seeing people’s excitement as they got something wonderful for so little. And something once loved is loved again.

So that is the back story of my connection to yard sales. Along the way, I also have had experience and training in producing events like concerts and big meetings. I’ve done several Convergences as vendor coordinator, and have been a craft vendor myself in many, many shows, large and small. So it was fate and the universe pushing me in that direction, not me setting out to do this. 

I have seen buying frenzies again - every year! - at the Anything Fiber Sale, and excited people bubbling over about their great buys and good sales. In setting that in motion, I am content. But my mother is cackling in my ear!!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Just get it right!!! A rant about fiber in the media

As an adherent of the practice of traditional fiber arts, I notice when books, TV or movies represent those practices. Sometimes it’s embarrassing - I cringed during the Mists of Avalon mini-series scene depicting spinning as the actress pedals at top speed hunched over a castle wheel, clutching finished yarn at the orifice, letting it take up on the bobbin and then yanking back on it.  No drafting, no fiber, just have her pedal the hell out of a modern wheel and call it spinning. 

Just a few weeks ago, I watched a favorite tv series character refer to “fine Scottish cotton” and was stopped in my tracks. The time period was early 1700s, and it mainly grew in America and India at the time, so that reference was baffling. Wool was the main fiber in Scotland then, not cotton, and it was actually against the law to manufacture cotton fabric in Britain, to protect the wool industry.  If it was made in Scotland during that time, it was made from wool.

A book titled “Weavers” that I picked up to read, a fantasy, but based in a medieval village setting was so poorly researched that I had to complain on Amazon. The author had the titular heroine winding balls of yarn as her cottage industry. Not spinning, not weaving, no explanation of where the yarn came from, no description of loom or wheel or any other equipment. Amazingly, the author was defended by some of her readers on the Amazon page, who told me to get down off my soapbox. Their explanation was that Weaver was her last name, not her activity; they obviously are ignorant of where last names came from in that era, and since this is a Young Adult love story, those historical facts don’t seem to matter to them. 

And that’s my beef with shoddy research - these young people are growing up with no idea of how cloth is made, and the media could care less about sharing all the fascinating details of historical fiber. Wars have been fought, empires built and laws enacted over fibers, fabrics and dyes, and yet so few remember. And there are tens of thousands of traditional fiber practitioners - millions if you include the craftsmen in the third world still practicing their cultural fiber crafts - who participate in making cloth from scratch.  It’s not an extinct practice, museum-bound and misunderstood. It’s a living craft, looking forwards AND backwards, filled with magic and skill. I find it tragic that the fiber arts are so poorly understood and are nearly forgotten. That was my main impetus in opening the shop and gallery, to educate, to advocate for the fiber arts. If I could keep that knowledge alive, one person at a time, that was worth the effort. Now that the shop is closed, it’s a little harder. So instead, I complain. 

The most recent thorn in my side is an episode of Outlander, a historical novel turned into a cable series on Starz. The books themselves are meticulously researched - I have found few errors in them, and none in the area of the fiber arts - but the tv series is another matter. Firstly, the costuming is decently authentic in most ways, but the women in the series are wearing bulky knitted shrugs, wristlets and scarves, not period at all. Bulky yarn is a modern creation, and knitting during that time was mainly for socks and stockings, and not for decorative and not very warm wraps. 

But the real kicker was the Outlander episode that included a waulking scene where a group of village women are waulking wool cloth. More or less accurate to start, including chants, urine and a length of wool tartan. I was thrilled since waulking is a large part of what I do as a felter. AND THEN, the woman tells Claire that the urine is for setting the dyes. NOT TRUE! and what a loss of an opportunity to tell a story. Urine and the pounding is for fulling the cloth, that is, making the cloth hard and dense so that the plaid is weatherproof and warm, even in the wet cold Scots weather. That process allows it to be the go-to piece of clothing for Scots outlaws and clansmen traveling rough through the Highlands. Also, if the dyes weren’t set yet, the colors would run and blend in the waulking, and the clan pattern would be lost entirely, even the muted hunting plaids in the show. Vegetable dyes are set in the dyeing process as well, not in a later process. Just not accurate at all, and they could have Googled waulking and gotten more accurate information.

Shoddy. Just shoddy. All I could think was that they asked a museum docent and not a practicing weaver or felter. Of which they have thousands in Scotland where the show is produced. 

You can tell that I take all of these transgressions personally. And all of us should. I’d be willing to bet that many of you have noticed similar mistakes, and cringed. We should complain, and regularly. I have half-kiddingly suggested that we stage flash-mobs at gyms that offer “Spinning” classes, to demonstrate the real spinning process, the one that pre-dates the stationary bicycle. Why they thought we were done with the term so they could appropriate it, I don’t know. 

So I do think we should complain, and often.* Fiber practices are nearly invisible in our culture, other than knitting and quilting, and so many knitters and quilters themselves are ignorant of the depth of the craft they practice.  If we want the fiber arts to continue in this new millennium, it’s up to us to forge that visibility. And keep the media aware that we are keeping an eye on them. 

PS: You can check out this website, that comments on period authenticity, from a historian's standpoint, if not a fiber artist's. It's a bit snarky, and fun. 

* UPDATE And, we should acknowledge authors and media that get it right. I just emailed an author who described in thrilling accuracy the process of spinning linen. She interviewed a farmer/spinner and watched YouTube videos to get the terms and process correct. I got a wonderful note back from her, and I hope that she will take up spinning because of her interest. This is only a benefit to all of us, to encourage and teach. The book is Entreat Me, by Grace Draven. Thanks, Grace!!!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Caring for Hand-felted Garments and Accessories

Wash felt items by hand with mild dish soap or shampoo - not Woolite - they've reformulated it for all types of fiber and now it's too alkaline for wool. (Ironic, isn't it) You don't want to wash a felted item in hot water, especially with soap or it will shrink. Similarly, do not "scrunch" the piece continually, since that will also shrink it. I recommend a filling a washbasin or large plastic bowl with cool to lukewarm water, and a few drops of soap, letting the piece saturate in the water, swishing it and turning it, let it sit for 5 minutes and then rinse.

Rinse in cool water til all evidence of soap is gone, several rinses if necessary, and add a drop of vinegar in the last rinse to neutralize the soap. You can put a drop of hair conditioner in one more rinse to make a felt garment softer. (conditioner is not recommended for Nuno (felt on silk) items.

You can roll the piece in a towel or put it in the spin cycle on your washing machine to remove excess water. Block to size, just like a sweater. I usually draw an outline around the piece on a piece of butcher paper before I wash it to help with blocking. After the piece is washed I put the butcher paper pattern under a sheet of 4 mil plastic on a large table and stretch, shape and flatten the piece to match the drawing.

After blocking, you can steam iron while it is still wet. Use the Wool setting to achieve a smooth surface. Do not iron a dry wool piece or you will scorch it. You can also just dry it without ironing. Nuno items can be ironed when wet, but it diminishes the nuno effect so it's not recommended.

Felted items can be hung to dry on a thick hangar without stretching and that's the fastest way to dry them. Be sure to have a towel or washbasin below to catch the residual water in the piece. Normally a piece that is hung will dry overnight. You can also lay the piece out on a towel to dry, which will take about 24 hours or so, depending on size.

Pilling and loose fibers:
All garments made of fibers will pill. That includes fine merino sweaters as well as man-made fibers such as "polar fleece." They will pill most where there is the most friction, under the arms and anywhere you handle the piece regularly. Felted items will pill over time as well. The best way to handle pills on a felt piece is to cut the pills off along the surface with fine scissors, like cuticle scissors. That isn't good advice for knitted items, since you are cutting strands of yarn and making the structure less stable, but felt has a different, stronger structure and will not be less sound once the stray fibers are cut. I don't  recommend pulling the pills off the surface of felt items, since it will loosen the surrounding fibers and soften the piece.

Pilling can also be a sign of a felt item softening, so that more fibers are available on the surface to catch and pull under friction. You can harden your piece yourself, by first cutting your pills and loose fibers off at the surface and then doing what I said above NOT to do - dunk it in hot soapy water and scrunch it around for a few minutes. Then follow the instructions to rinse and dry the piece, paying particular attention to stretching it back to size. (see suggestions above for blocking) Felt can be manipulated and stretched while wet, even long after you've bought it, so slowly pull it back into shape and it will dry good as new.

If you have any other questions about the care of your felted item, get in touch by email -

Friday, May 2, 2014

Caring for Hand-dyed yarns & fiber

Our yarns are dyed with commercial dyes that are guaranteed to be light- and wash-fast. We don’t use natural dyes because they don’t allow for a variety of bright colors or fastness. That doesn't mean that Natural Dyes aren't wonderful! We just like bright colors that can be dependably mixed and matched. Nearly every color can be achieved, unlike the limited palette of plant matter and other natural dye sources. Our dyes are completely safe to wear and wash and are also easy and fast to use. We would love to teach you to use dyes on your own - check out our Workshops page to see the variety of classes we offer.

Any item that has been dyed by Nice Threads has been washed thoroughly (cottons and linens are boiled; wools and silks are steamed) to fix the dyes, but there will likely be a small amount of excess dye that will wash out the first few times. Therefore, we recommend washing initially with similar colors and in cool water. Hot water will force the excess dye to wash out more freely. After a few washings, you shouldn't have to worry about dye coming out of your piece.

Cottons and linens can be machine washed and dried, with normal soaps. Wools and silks should be hand-washed with mild soap like Dawn (do not use Woolite - it's too alkaline for wool now that they re-formulated it for all fibers!). It's not a bad idea to rinse your item in cold water with a splash of vinegar to neutralize the alkalinity. Shampoo is a great alternative soap for your animal fiber item - just treat it like your hair! You can even put a few drops of conditioner in the very last rinse to soften your item.

And, be sure to wash your item when you've finished knitting/crocheting/weaving it - in hot water, just this one time - so that the stitches will settle together into a continuous fabric. I've been surprised to hear that many hobbyists don't know that that step is an important finishing process to get the best results.

All yarns and fibers have been pre-shrunk, but in the process of making your hand-made item, will likely shrink a bit so be sure to get more than you need for your project. Please note that Merino yarn or fiber will definitely shrink dependably if "felting" (finishing your item by putting it in the washer/dryer to shrink and harden it) is part of your project. Also note that any of our yarns or fibers labeled Superwash can be machine washed, since the capability of felting/shrinking has been removed from the fibers. I do recommend using a milder soap and warm or cool water. Superwash fibers and yarns are great for socks and baby things, not to mention sweaters for those family members who don't sort through the laundry before tossing things in the machine!

Small batch dyeing will produce colors slightly different every batch so please be sure to order/buy more than you need before you start. If you find you have run out of your hand-dyed yarn or fiber before you are done, we can try to match your colors, but we can’t guarantee a match if you order more in a separate batch.

Get in touch with us if you have any questions about your hand-dyed items!

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Weight, What?

The weight of fiber first intruded on my consciousness when I was in school to learn weaving. We would weigh the cones of yarn from the yarn closet on an old-fashioned baby scale before we wound our warps and shuttles. Then after weaving was done, we would weigh the cones again, giving us the amount of yarn to be charged on our school supply accounts. I never thought much about it other than that it had a nice housekeeping orderliness to the process.

The next time I thought about weight was when I was lugging armfuls of tie-dyed clothing from the car to my booth on the vendor's meadow at music festivals - rayon is heavy! Especially compared to the linen and silk items I was sewing because I couldn't find white linen or silk "blanks" anywhere. I promptly started sewing my own clothing items to save my back.

The third time I had to deal with the weight of fiber -- and I paid attention this time -- was at one of my first felting classes. The students were making hats, and I had put out the big coils of roving in all the glorious colors I had brought for them to pull from. They went wild, and couldn't keep their hands off this color and that (you know the feeling!) and by the end of the class, most people's hats weighed up to a half pound. Heavy, man! After that, I tested to see how little wool was needed for a felt hat and packaged 2 ounces each in all the colors for them to choose from. It was more work for me, but much more successful for the student's first experience in making hats - they were still colorful, but plenty light and warm. Eureka!

The importance of weight in handmade items has been on my mind lately as we package yarns and fiber for the shop, and make suggestions on what amount to buy to make what items. Fleece for felting is easy - I know exactly how much you need for each type of item, from years of weighing before and after, that good habit being ingrained since I went to Haywood. (Thank you, Catherine!)

But the amount of yarn, as well as the amount of fleece to spin yarn is sometimes difficult - so much depends on the designated size of the yarn, the stitch, the needle size, your style of knitting, the patterns you're using, etc, etc. So yardage is a moving target. That's one of the reasons knitters have such a tough time getting a pattern right - especially when they don't take the time to do gauge swatches. But weight, now there's a solid concept in knitting, crochet, and weaving that we can talk about.

Just like the felting student didn't realize that more wool than needed would mean carrying a half pound on her head (I'm getting a headache just thinking about it), you don't want a pound of yarn draped around your shoulders for a shawl, or two pounds of sweater hanging (and stretching) to your knees. And just like the linen and silk tie-dyed items I made were light as a cloud to pack and carry, linen, silk and wool yarns will be far, far lighter than rayon, cotton, and alpaca yarns, so you can get more yardage for the same weight.

I know that most knitting patterns will have the yarn brand, style and number of skeins to buy to make the pattern, and sometimes they will give the weights as well. Sure, you can tell something about the weight of the item from the photo - if it's lace, it's light, right? - but if you do the math on the weight of the yarn called for, you come to find that lacey scarf, made from cotton and rayon yarn, is actually 8 ounces in weight, a half pound hanging from your neck. If you made the same scarf from a wool or silk yarn instead, it might be half that weight.

So my suggestion is, find your favorite items in your closets and drawers to wear. Find a scale that does ounces and pounds, and find out how much it weighs. Then use that weight to buy your yarn. A scarf should be light in the summer and only a little heavier for the winter. A sweater should not weigh more than a pound, and so on.

After you've found an ideal weight for your knitted item, buy that amount of yarn in the size designation that you like to work in. Knit a swatch with the needles that seem to fit that yarn and the stitch pattern that you'd like to use. (start with the needles that a doubled piece of yarn fits through in a needle gauge) Knit at least a 4" x 4" swatch and extrapolate the size of the swatch in weight and size to the larger garment, and change the size of needles and maybe the stitch pattern til you get the right combination that will give you the size and weight of the finished item.

Yes, you can always buy more yarn if you need it, but the point is not to add weight, but to knit to the weight you prefer.
I know that isn't as thought-free as just following a pattern. But you will know with much more certainty that you'll like the finished piece.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

2013 Sock Challenge

I once knitted a pair of socks a long time ago, just one pair, and it took me all year. I was not an enthusiastic knitter, then or now. The socks (I did finish them!) have felted and thickened in washing, so they’re more like slippers now than socks. I didn’t know to look for superwash wool, if they even had it for knitters then. Altogether, not a good experience and it’s a sad thing too. I learned knitting from my mom, who would knit up our Christmas stockings in the fall. I still use double point needles for hats and wristlets, they just feel more natural than circulars.

From a functional standpoint, I go through a lot of department store socks. And increasingly, they are made of non-breathing materials and sprout holes and tears in the toe seams within a year. Cheap materials and factory made, but not a good bargain. I understand that a good knitter can turn out a pair of socks in a day or two. I could really use a dozen well-made socks. I could really use a dozen well-made socks in my favorite colors too. Surely, sock knitting is a learnable skill. So says Robyn, and I’ve watched a series of sock newbies turn out lovely socks in her classes (see photo below).

So my New Year’s resolution - and Nice Threads’ 2013 Sock Challenge - is to learn to make socks with Cat Bordhi’s technique in one of Robyn’s classes and then go on to make a pair of socks by February 15th. And then a pair each month thereafter. I’ll post the results on our FB page, warts and all, but hopefully we’ll see an improvement from the first to the twelfth.

A lovely sock in progress, made by Barbara from hand-dyed superwash merino yarn in last year's Personal Footprint sock class.

In making this resolution, I’ll be taking my own advice - Make at least 3 of everything! Only in this case, it will be 12, so 4 times as much trial and error, bad technique discovered and experimentation applied. 4 times as many tries as it takes to get it right. In that view, I can relax a bit about making my first pair perfect.

One of the beauties of Cat Bordhi’s technique is that it works with all weights of yarn. That means that all twelve socks can be completely different but I’ll be working the same pattern. My first pair of socks will be of bulky yarn so it will go faster and I won’t have to squint to see the stitches. I don’t know about diamond patterns and lace cuffs, but I’m sure my twelfth pair will be made out of that smooth, glossy superwash/silk yarn I sell to sock knitters at the the shop. And notice that I’m saying my twelfth pair and not my last - I am planning to be a sock knitter from here on out.

I hope you will join me! You can ask to schedule Robyn’s class anytime you are ready, or just drop in between 1pm and 2pm on Saturdays to get started. You need an hour to get the beginning information and then an hour to make your first rounds under Robyn's discerning eye, and then you can go home and finish the sock on your own. You can always make quick visits to Nice Threads for advice and repairs.

But you can also get the book and work along with us in your far-flung, but internet connected homes. A link is below and on our website, to Amazon for Personal Footprints for Insouciant Sock Knitters by Cat Bordhi, our source material. I promise you, it will be worth a book and a year of sock-making. (Who knows, you may perfect your sock knitting by May) I promise to share my sock-making insights along with all 12 pairs of good, bad and ugly, so at the least, check in to our Facebook page for updates.

If you are joining the challenge, upload photos of your socks to our Facebook wall or just send us a message and we’ll repost it. A prize will be given to the person who posts the most socks in the year. And maybe there are some intrepid experts out there who could make a pair of socks every two weeks. Amaze and inspire us and post your socks too!

Thanks and lets get knitting!