our common fiber

lace shrug; made by Naomi Weller, my great-grandmother

Today, Michele of 144 Stitches and I are sharing our thoughts on a topic that is both vitally important and just as volatile; community and handcraft are intrinsically bound, but as in any family of flawed humans, we will inevitably hurt one another, often times over issues of integrity in intellectual property. To begin, I want to illustrate how deeply handcrafts are connected to the communities in which they are passed down and shared.

My great-grandmother Naomi was a magical spider.

She had long, fine, elegant fingers, incongruent with the round softness of the rest of her. She wove intricate webs of thinnest cotton, entrancing in their repeated radial patterns. She laughed often, a crackling, nearly sardonic laugh; everyone was her “sweetie”.  Yet there was a mystery about her, a hidden life years gone that made a her a fascinating creature of shadowy, cool corners.

My grandma Stella was a wagon train driver.

She had a dry, brusque, pragmatic way, a Minnesota farm girl transplanted into less then fertile soil. The woman had grit. Even her laugh was smoke and sand, with not a hint of music, though I’ve heard tale she and my grandfather once danced. She made things because she had to: not at all joyless, but sparse, simple, utilitarian. She made a homely rectangular afghan for me, a slew of pink stripes, colors changed at skein’s end, all double crochet. We’d lay it on the living room floor to watch the Dodgers game and eat string cheese.

My grandma Joanne was a child’s heart.

She whose own childhood was cut far too short flatly refused to grow into the hard bitterness she was entitled to. She was so small, so bright eyed, so laughing, so generous, so naive, so wise, so welcoming. My ten year old mother wanted to swim, so my grandmother made her a bathing suit in the kitchen. I played Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, so she altered a thrift store dress into an Elizabethan masterpiece. The world was cold, so she made it an afghan. She made things to pour out her child’s heart love as a healing balm, to heal herself and you (yes…you).

In the very room where I sit in this photograph, my Grandma Joanne taught me to daisy chain. Despite her always jovial manner, the lesson was not bolstered by a lot of encouragement or cheerleading. She was to the point and did not slow down or reteach my young hands. She was wise enough to understand the value of frustration and would not rob me of its benefits.

For whom among us do these women, my legacy of handcraft and love, not strike a familiar chord? Whom among us has not felt bound to the one who taught them; the older generation, a friend in college, a teacher volunteering at your school?

Reach back into the annals of history; this pattern of hand-me-down handcraft is age old and timeless. Handcrafting spans the gap between generations, between cultures, and between pragmatism and art.

So, indeed, when we spin fleece into strands, put dye to fiber, put needle and hook to yarn, put needle and thread to fabric, write it down, photograph it, gift it, sell it, share it, indeed, we are artists, born of a long, long line of artist ancestors. My grandmother knew the pattern for her chevron afghans by rote and heart, but as she chose colors and wove in thoughts of the folks for whom they were made, she took something common and made it art. The painter may use the same brush technique as those who came before her, but when she paints her own vision, it becomes art.

I’m here to tell you, there is nothing new under the sun. If you think no one has done it, think again-someone has. This has a two-fold meaning for us a designers, makers, and crafters. Firstly, we have the chance to understand our place in a larger story; don’t think for a second that what you are doing transcends the roots of your craft. Instead, respect those roots, embrace them, reach down and learn from them, and do it humbly. Secondly, we can accept the challenge to cast our own vision in this world, adding to the legacy of our craft.

We develop our vision by mimicking those we admire, but, please, give credit to that source of inspiration. Don’t get stuck in that phase, even if that means removing yourself for a time from the constantly available visual influx of other’s work. Sketch, swatch, experiment, fail, do it again. Figure out your perspective, validate its intrinsic value, and build on it. If you can accomplish this, it will no longer matter if you use the same stitches or garment type as another maker, because it will be unmistakably yours. Don’t sell yourself short or disrespect the art of others by becoming mired in mimicry while claiming to be an original. You are better than that! 

However, the artist does not lay claim to the paint, brushstroke, or canvas. It is the spirit, vision, and love put into the piece in its completed form that gives it meaning, impact, and worth.

I have no right to claim the tools of my craft as my own property. Stitches and stitch patterns are one of those tools. There is a reason stitches and stitch patterns cannot be copyrighted; they are OURS. How remarkable that we only own them in community! Even a stitch pattern I invent is relinquished into the communal ownership of the fiber arts tribe. I surrender it with a grateful heart.

In my pursuit of casting my own fiber vision, I continue to honor the singular crafty women who came before me. After years of constant practice and making, their own character was revealed in their craft. It continues to be my great joy to witness both the character and artistry of so many, while offering my own contributions.

We are all only human; for all the moments we find incredible inspiration and encouragement from one another, there will be moments when we hurt one another and get in each other’s way. As you move within this incredibly rich fiber arts community, remember to give one another both grace and credit!

Please go visit my dear friend Michele at her blog, where she is sharing her thoughts on this remarkable creative community and the role we play in it.

We want you to be part of this vital conversation, too! We have so often witnessed the frustration and pain that can surround issues of creative community and intellectual integrity. These are not simple matters, and our reactions to them come from varied perspectives. Yours is an important voice in the community! Remember to take a moment to allow grace and understanding to take the lead, be encouraging whenever possible, and tell the truth in love!