Tag Archives: Craft skills

Does My Thumb Look Big In This?

I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve got Viking ancestry.  I’ve long suspected as much by the way I search the television schedules for programmes which Neil Oliver is presenting, particularly if he’s wandering around the bleak landscape of Scandinavia (though to be honest, anywhere north of Birmingham will do).  And my tendency to visit Viking re-enactments whenever I see them advertised is also a bit of a giveaway – I like the crafts, I like the clothes, I like the opportunity to throw an axe without worrying what the neighbours will think.  Recently I even considered whether I should do one of those DNA tests which breaks down your genetic origins geographically although, to be honest, I pretty much know that on one side I’m Slavic and on the other Welsh, with some French and some English bits.  The only hope for Viking origin comes from Grandad Charles Iden’s ancestors but given that an Osbert de Iden landed in Sussex during the Norman Conquest and had a village named after him (proving that he was either a close mate of William or a land-grabbing bully), it’s a very thin and wispy hope.

Luckily though, two things have come to my attention.  Firstly, in his programme The Vikings – which I recently watched for the umpteenth time – Neil makes the point that the eponymous Northerners weren’t afraid to venture out into the world and there’s even evidence that they got down into the southern reaches of Europe.  Secondly, I found this photograph of my great grandmother Felicité Marie just before she left France for Wales in the early years of the 20th Century.  French, my eye!  Have you ever seen a more Viking looking woman?  A glare that could freeze the marrow in your bones.  And I bet there’s an axe hidden in that hat.

Buoyed with this new found certainty about my ancestors, I decided I should put my Viking-ness to good use.  The Stay At Home and Stay Local messages prevented me from rampaging or pillaging but when Nalbinding appeared on the Heritage Crafts Association (https://heritagecrafts.org.uk) list of endangered craft skills, learning how to do it seemed like a perfect way to channel my inner Noggin the Nog.   Only two things stood in the way of my Viking credentials – a name and a saga.

The Saga of Maria Big Thumb, Multiple Loops and the Oslo Cast On

In the valleys of the West, where the high moorlands meet the grey, cloud-swept skies, in the cool summer evenings that seem longer this year than most, a solitary woman works at her wool crafts and thinks of tales to tell. 

A shadow had fallen across the land and from the Senedd, the order was given to lock the gates and close the bridges.  An edict was issued that people should keep to their hovels and only venture out to search for toilet paper, baking powder or pizza bases.   Tucked away safely in her little cottage, Maria Big Thumb unwrapped the parcel of wool which had just arrived from her allies in the north and knew the time was right to learn the almost lost Viking craft of nalbinding.  

Ffffff the 1st

After much searching in the forgotten temples of Google, she found an old pdf with drawings of small, dainty hands and caused it to be printed out.  Maria Big Thumb spent many hours trying to understand it and even read the words out loud to see if that helped:

“Wrap the yarn around your fingers 3 times” – yes, simple. “Grab the eight between your fingers” – what eight?  Where did the other five come from?  “There are now 3 thumb loops” – where did the five go?  And how did the thumb join in? 

Hint (said the pdf): Say to yourself, 2 loops stay around the thumb, 2 loops get picked up on the needle.

“Ffffff,” said Maria Big Thumb.

Ffffff the 2nd

Later that evening, when Maria Big Thumb had calmed down, washed her glass and put the empty bottles out for the recycling, she decided to call upon the god Amazon for help.  Soon a book, illustrated with fine coloured pictures of beautifully manicured fingers arrived.  Maria Big Thumb threaded up her needle and resolved to start again.  On page 27 she found instructions for nalbinding beginners to follow.  “Take the yarn and hold it in the left hand” – yes, simple (but she remembered thinking that last time).  “Fold the big loop to get smaller loops so the result resembles half a looped square” – what big loop?  And what does half a looped square look like? “Pull the needle through the loop and it will become the first loop” – what loop?  WHAT LOOP?

 

Hint (said the book): If you only have one loop on the thumb, you can take the needle through both mouse ears at the same time. 

“Ffffff, Ffffff,” said Maria Big Thumb.

Ffffff the 3rd

Risking the wrath of the law, Maria Big Thumb ventured down to the corner shop for the magical potions which would help her understand these strange words but try as she might, and even after the recycling bin was overflowing, they remained dark and mysterious to her.  In the end she realised she had no choice left.  She had worshipped at the temples of Google and she had made offerings to the god Amazon.  Now it was time to go to Valhalla itself; she resolved to consult the great deity YouTube.   “Foolish Maria Big Thumb,” boomed the voice of YouTube, “you have failed because Google sought to teach you in the ways of the Left Handed Start and Amazon tried to trick you with the Finnish Stitch. 

Hint (said YouTube): If you had come to me straight away you would have learnt the Oslo Cast On and all things would have been well.  Better late than never though, so look at this video of a woman with unchipped nail varnish and let’s get on with it.”

“Ffffff, Ffffff, Ffffff,” said Maria Big Thumb.

Epilogue

Thus it came to pass that Maria Big Thumb learnt the skill of nalbinding and achieved Level 1 NVQ (Norse Viking Qualification).  She eventually hopes to progress to study for a Level 2 NVQ specialising in yelling loudly and beard plaiting.  Current circumstances mean that Maria Big Thumb is furloughed from her work placement raiding fishing villages on the Scottish coast.  In the meantime she is considering cleaning her nails and washing her hands before featuring them in photographs.

If all goes well, the next blog will appear mid-August.  Until then

Stay Safe, Be Kind, Keep Smiling.

Unlost Places – Moffat to Mull

“There is a silent eloquence in every wild bluebell that fills my softened heart with bliss that words could never tell.”           Anne Brontë

Our journey from Wales to Scotland tracked the flowering of bluebells; they had the appearance of waterfalls on the harsh hillsides of Snowdonia, nestled in the meadows of Lancashire and were cushioned in the leaf litter of Scottish woods.  As we travelled north their hue changed from an almost ephemeral delicacy to the most intense hyacinth blue.  Whilst the sight of them is arresting enough, they also drown the air with a heady perfume – reason enough for anyone to want to walk amongst them.  Scotland in May is a pretty good where and when to do so.

MOFFAT

In front of moss-fringed stones ramsons,violets,campions dance; Jack waits his turn by the hedge.

I love walking and now that I’ve given up painting in favour of field sketching and poetic tercets, I find more and more textures that I want to try and capture.  Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t.

The area around Moffat is ideal for the Unlost Places project: twisting lanes enfolded by steep sided hills and the sense that everywhere is a landscape that belongs to a moment in history.   I marked my passage through place and time by building a small sculpture on the walls of an ancient bridge.

I use what are euphemistically called ‘indigenous dyes’ to colour material for stitchery.  This is done by rubbing fabric against wood, metal or stone surfaces to stain the background surface.  It’s an example of how an art map becomes much more the visual representation of a place that I spoke about in last month’s blog.

THE ISLE OF MULL

A visit to the Isle of Mull (http://www.isle-of-mull.net/) had long been on my to-do list.  We crossed from Oban to Craignure then headed to the beautiful and isolated bay of Lochbuie.  Apart from a couple of houses, an honesty shop (a well-stocked general store where you chose what goods you wanted and were trusted to leave the appropriate amount of money behind – how refreshing is that as a concept?) and the ubiquitous ruined castle, Lochbuie is also home to the tiny St Kilda’s church.

Unlost Places is all about using art and poetry to reflect features which are in some way transcendent.  In the porch of St Kilda’s is an engraved Celtic Cross, tentatively dated to the 8th Century.  This is a project that finds creativity in unexpected places.

It’s also a project that leaves creativity in unexpected places.  An hour spent beach-combing yielded driftwood, shells and old fishing line – enough raw materials for some weaving to be left hanging from a tree.  Hopefully proving that it’s not just bluebells which are silently eloquent.

Soothing the troubled spirit

“Properly practised, knitting soothes the troubled spirit, and it doesn’t hurt the untroubled spirit either.”  Elizabeth Zimmerman.

In the 19th Century, some doctors would prescribe knitting for the relief of high anxiety and hysteria and undoubtedly, knitting – like many craft skills which require concentration and dexterity – has a calming, almost meditative effect.  Can you sense a ‘but’ coming?  I won’t keep you waiting in case you are prone to high anxiety and hysteria – but, what happens if you can’t knit?  I don’t mean that you haven’t learnt; that is a situation that is easily remedied.  I’ve yet to meet a knitter who isn’t willing to share their skill and for most people, all that is needed to master knitting is 2 sticks (the technical term is needles but to all intents and purposes, they are sticks with bobbles on one end and a point of the other), yarn and some measure of manual dexterity.  Mind you, if you search the internet there are lots of people who manage to knit with their toes but as I don’t know what the foot equivalent term of manual dexterity is, I’ll carry on about the people who can’t knit. (Apologies to the toe knitters for any offence caused.)

Knitted by Nell

My older sister, Nell, is a formidable knitter, socks and fingerless mittens being a speciality.  She designs her own patterns, does weird things called provisional cast ons, and waxes lyrical (and at great length) about the pros and cons of picot edging versus rib.  I’m not sure whether Nell’s spirit needs soothing but I am convinced that she views knitting as an intellectual adventure.  Without knitting, her hands would probably be picking away at the wallpaper in the pub where she and her compatriots currently meet for a ‘knit and natter’ session.  Social engagement is a wonderful by-product of most crafts, particularly the portable kind like knitting.

Knitted by Annie

My younger sister, Annie, couldn’t knit.  Over the years many people (including me) of varying experience in knitting and/or teaching have tried to help her overcome this handicap.  All have failed.  Whereas once Annie took a kind of perverse pleasure in her ability to ‘break’ experts, just recently she has found herself in some situations where the calming effect of knitting  would have been welcome.  Now that I am doing some sessions as a mentor of creative practices (more on this next month), I decided to volunteer my services again.  Curiously enough, stepping away from my previous skills of teacher/tutor/educator and instead using those of a mentor/guide/companion was all it took for Annie to stop thinking in terms of success or failure.  Her woolly pumpkin is the end of her being willing – even happy – to say “I can’t knit”  and the beginning of a creative journey that is full of possibility.

Dark Tonight (from Etifeddiaeth)

Nestling between the two extremes of sisters and their knitting skills, my wool and needles have a more niche setting.  I use free form knitting (often called Scrumbling) to create deeply textured surfaces which act as a foundation for layered embroidery, embellishment with found objects and appliqué.  This allows me to forget figurative representation and instead make some deeply personal and subjective interpretations of cultural geography.

Burial mounds on Brynywrach

My current project is a continuation of my MA dissertation which involved mapping the metaphysical features of landscape through poetry and mixed media art.  A book, creative walked journeys and a linked exhibition loom in 2019 so work has started on a wall hanging called ‘Run!’.  Incidentally, the title has nothing to do with dropped stitches and everything to do with the ill-fated attempt of the Silurian tribe of Glamorgan to escape the advance of the Roman army in the 1st century AD.  In an effort to make the knitting belong to the landscape it is representing I have done some solar dyeing with plant material harvested from the area.

White wool with natural dyes

In addition I have been walking/running over the ancient paths of the the Glamorgan ridgeway with wool tied around my shoes.  It gets nicely stained with what you could call indigenous dyes if you were being academic, but sheep poo is just as accurate a term.

Indigenous dyes

My doomed Silurians also had to climb a very steep ill in their efforts to get away.  One afternoon last month I repeated their journey, threw a ball of coarse Welsh wool down the slope and then wandered after it, knitting as I went.

Knitting in landscape

Anything that got caught in the yarn – moss, fleece and, yes, sheep poo – got knitted in.  By the time this wall hanging is finished it will also have lines of poetry that will tell the story of a people who met their end within sight of their homes to the east and safe haven to the west.  There is no picture which can convey that reality but I’m willing to bet that knitting will do it justice.

Looking towards home

So if you can’t knit yet – whether because you haven’t learnt or because you think you have some kind of congenital inability – maybe it’s time to have another go.  We knitters live in a world of excitement and joy, calm in the face of adversity and never looking for something to do.  Most wool shops offer lessons and workshops – sometimes with added cats like the wonderful Bramble Murgatroyd at Knit One in Dolgellau:

Bramble surveys her realm

About Knit one…

Lots of towns, villages and communities have groups which provide support and facilities for crafters of all sort.  My local area has established one to address everything from enabling artisan makers to counteracting social isolation by letting people learn skills from each other.  (www.craft.bridgendreach.org.uk).  There again, you could always join or start a yarnstorming brigade.  You need to have mischief making tendencies for this sort of thing and established groups are likely to be suspicious of anyone trying to push their way in.

Lily’s Posse Yarnstormers in action

If you’re still not convinced, maybe you should consider the words of Stephanie Pearl-McPhee:

“the number one reason knitters knit is because they are so smart that they need knitting to make boring things interesting.  Knitters are so compellingly clever that they simply can’t tolerate boredom.”

 

 

Hunting Words

“I and Pangur Bán, my cat,

‘Tis a like task we are at;

Hunting mice is his delight,

Hunting words I sit all night …”

9th Century Irish rhyme ‘The Monk and his Cat.’ In an attempt to make you think that I have actually got a plan for this blog, Lily (my cat) will appear in most of the images metaphorically representing the logical part of your brain.

With no excuses for prevarication left I have finally started work on my book.  As usual I found the hardest part was finding the words to begin the first chapter.  I have overcome this difficulty with a neat little trick that I learnt when I was doing my degree in Creative Writing, namely don’t begin at the beginning.  Start writing half way through the book and in the middle of a chapter, page, paragraph or even sentence.  This will irritate the logical part of your brain so much that it will go and lie down in a darkened room thereby leaving your creativity unsupervised and ready to rock and roll.

The black cat of creativity waits for an opening.

So whereas my book (as yet untitled but when you consider it’s about integrating an ethos bound approach and multiple strands of creative practice, is that a surprise?) is going to start with an overview of what it means to have a)an ethos bound approach and b) multiple strands of creative practice before going on to explore how they can be integrated, I have not begun at this point for fear the excitement level would be too much for readers to bear.  Instead I have started writing the chapter which is all about working in isolation (and if you’ve been reading my blogs from their start in 2014, you’ll know that this is something which exercises my mind on a regular basis).

and the metaphorical cat of logic retreats to the rafters.

I approach writing with the same degree of preparation that I use for any other craft i.e. none at all: I don’t plan things out, develop a structure or even list key words and concepts.  I sit in front of the computer and as my lovely, talented Creative Writing lecturer Barrie Llewelyn (https://twitter.com/Arleta1?lang=en) used to describe it, ‘projectile vomit words onto the screen’.  This way of working, it turns out, is another irritant for the logical side of the brain and is likely to cause it to not only  lie down in a darkened room but possibly pull the blankets up over its head too so it can’t witness what’s going to happen next.

Let’s just pretend it’s not happening.

I’d got in touch with Barrie recently because a friend of mine had decided she wanted to start doing some creative writing but wasn’t sure about whether enrol on a course or join a writers’ group.  Now that she’s four sessions into her studying, writing about anything and everything and even worrying about whether you spell the term for a temporary table as ‘tressle’, ‘tressel’ or ‘trestle’ (it’s the last one if you’re a pedant), Carole is having to face up to the fact that being creative – particularly in an ethos bound approach – comes with its own set of challenges, one of which is – what’s the point  of it?  Like many of us, Carole is unlikely to be able to measure her literary success in monetary terms; no matter how much work she puts in or what she writes about her creative efforts may never be appreciated in the wider world.  So when Carole said to me “why do it if it’s not going to be published or sell?” I had to do a bit of thinking about the answer because I knew  it was going to fit in with one of the chapters of my book – although I haven’t decided which one yet.

There’s a point to everything but sometimes it’s difficult to know what it is.

This brings me to my niece Alexandra.  Back in 2005, at the start of the school holidays, Alexandra came to stay for a weekend thereby reducing the complexities of her mother’s childcare arrangements.  None of us expected that a 10 year old sophisticate from the city would adapt well to country living in a cottage with no central heating, no computer and not much television allowed.  Alexandra however proved us all wrong and finally had to be forced home after 5 weeks so that she could spend a couple of days with her parents and sisters before going back to school.  What, I can hear you all asking, has this got to do with creativity?  Well, two things actually.  The first is that without the distractions of technology, Alexandra indulged in what Einstein called ‘combinatory play’ and that led to her starting writing wonderful stories which entertained her and us all summer long.  I’ll be honest and say that I hadn’t heard of ‘combinatory play’ until I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s excellent book Big Magic but I find that I have been indulging in it all of my life.  Einstein considered that by doing unrelated things, the human brain has the capacity to think thoughts which would not otherwise jump the synaptic gap. We many not all get the results that he did when it comes to “the act of opening up one mental channel by dabbling in another”, but the next time that you’re struggling for an idea, it might be worth walking the dog, painting some shelves or doing some knitting to see what happens.  There could be a Nobel prize waiting for you.

The second thing that Alexandra did was play a game called ‘the government is banning…’  and it went along the lines of that if the government banned, say, films and you were allowed to watch just one more, which one would it be?  We spent the summer happily considering our final choices of books, music, food, holiday destinations and many more things.  A couple of days ago I was sitting in Carole’s kitchen listening to her wondering aloud whether she should continue her embryonic writing career.  Yes, she enjoyed it but was that enough?  How could she justify the time, the effort and the satisfaction if there was to be no quantifiable measure of success?  The seeds of this sort of angst about needing external validation are sown in childhood when moving from crawl to wobbly walk, clasping your bottom and shouting ‘wee!’ or showing Mum the scrawled drawings made on your first day at school  are held up as successes of such magnitude that without them, we think that the world may stop turning.  This angst lingers with ethos bound (i.e. not in it for the money) artists and writers longer than is reasonable or appropriate but luckily for Carole, for you and for the readers of my book when it finally makes it onto Amazon, I have the answer.

Also in Carole’s kitchen at the time was our other friend Annie.  Annie has the craft skills of a gnat (and won’t mind me saying so).

“Annie,” I said, “Answer this truthfully.  If the government banned creativity; hobbies like knitting, sewing, writing, painting, woodwork, gardening or cake decorating, would it bother you?”

“Nope,” replied Annie, hardly looking up from her magazine.

“Carole,” I said, “Answer this truthfully.  If the government banned creativity; hobbies like knitting, sewing, writing, painting, woodwork, gardening or cake decorating, would it bother you?”

“Yes,” said Carole, going pale and twitching slightly at the prospect, however unlikely.

It may have been a very small and unscientific experiment but it confirmed my belief that for people who are naturally creative, the creative process itself is worth as much as – if not more than – the outcome.  Presented with this Catch 22, the logical part of your brain may well wake up and think that the world is not such a random place after all.   This could prove very useful because things like time management, administration and organising your finances can very easily get in the way of all of the exciting stuff that creativity trawls along in its wake.

Give me a moment to think about it.

Having realised that this is as good a place as anywhere to try out the ideas for my book, in next month’s blog I’m going to consider other aspects of working in isolation like how you come up with ideas, motivate yourself to get started and then keep going.  Textile artists like Lisa Porch and Lydia Needle find inspiration for their work in unexpected places.  I dare say that if you print everything out month by month and staple the sheets together you’ll have the untitled book without having to part with a penny!

In the meantime, I leave the last words of this hunt to the monk and Pangur Bán:

“Practice every day has made

Pangur perfect in his trade;

I get wisdom day and night

Turning darkness into light.”

Whatever…