cotton, knitting, Living History, Spinning, Uncategorized

A Spiritual Encounter with Old Textiles

An inconceivably long time ago, the Most Infinitely Powerful Being created the world and turned it over to us. We were charged to fill the earth and have dominion over everything in it. The fish of the sea, birds of the heavens, plants yielding their seed, trees with their fruits, and all the beasts on earth are ours. Every human on earth was given the same power.

So, over the millennia, we have set about the task of using our natural resources for our fulfillment. This is the essence of culture. Using those gifts to create whatever is “good”. We create something and pause to see everything that we have made. Just like the Great One, we say, “Behold, this is very good”.

I spend a lot of time at the wheel traveling through whatever is floating around in my mind

Adoration. That deep appreciation for creation. Love, the cornerstone of culture. I have been steeping in this virtue for the last 2 months now. It first struck me visiting the National Museum of the American Coverlet. I set my eyes upon some of the oldest surviving textiles created in this country for the first time. I stared at them. Lay hands on them noticing every fiber that was coaxed out of the earth. Each one worked through the fingertips of an unnamed artisan into an intricate web. The countless hours of life energy long spent, yet somehow stored up in this textile. Here we are, fruit from the same seed of humanity. The Created marveling at creation. That’s love. This magnificent cloth. Behold, this is very good!

Our textiles are so precious. They are the relics of our culture.

Before leaving Bedford, Pennsylvania I stopped at Old Bedford Village museum and walked through some of the earliest structures built in the area. Gazing about at hand-scraped beams that were once a forest and masterfully set stonework, I was enchanted. Again, the realization of the fruits of creation. Behold, this is very good!

I have done very little traveling in my life. The internet and books are my primary looking glass and teachers. Occasionally, I am blessed to meet someone with good traveling shoes. Gasali Adeyemo came all the way from Ofatedo of Osun State Nigeria to show us what Nigerians have been doing with their natural gifts. Florida is barely close enough for me to visit (I like to keep my feet on the ground) but, I’m so glad I took the trip. From there Gasali took me and about 11 others to Nigeria (figuratively) for an Indigo Adire workshop.

My eyes danced when I saw these exquisite textiles. Imagine a cloth tied in thousands of stitches of raffia fiber and then, dipped into a luminous yellowy/green solution that would dye it a shimmery blue. Fathom the centuries of stored-up wisdom to make this happen. Ponder on the evidence of the human life energy stored in every hand stitch that resisted the dye. Visualize the artist’s fluid strokes coasting along the fabric as he applies a dye resist medium. Is this love? Why, yes! Behold, This is Very Good!

I dare you to look upon an old cloth and not immediately be transported back to Eden. Back to a time of perfection. Coaxed straight out of the earth? It seems supernatural yet, it’s what is truly natural. What we have now is unnatural. That’s a whole different discussion.

At the conference in Bedford, PA, we gathered ourselves in the act of cultural preservation. Imagine that. Less than 250 years in, and we already forget things. We’re so advanced in knowledge and know-how that we’re declining in knowledge and know-how? How does that make any sense? Just 2 grandmas later, warped is something that has gone askew, a shuttle takes you to outer space, spinning happens on a bike, and weaving is something you do to your hair with plastic fibers.

Thankfully, we still have everything we need. The tiny bit of cotton I just pulled off of my struggling plants keeps me grounded in this fact. As I soaked in the presentations and friendly exchanges at this conference it became very clear to me that we had assembled all the necessary ingredients to preserve our national treasures. We would honor and preserve our fiber arts heritage through practice.

We had 3 types of people. Enthusiasts, Archivists, and Artisans all assembled in one place.

Somehow we all managed to show up wearing purple. Reine Wells snapped this fun selfie while we took a short break from admiring all the handwoven coverlets

We need the Enthusiast. The enthusiasts love textiles so much that they are willing to collect, preserve, and display them. They value artisans and are ever finding ways to encourage and support them. Enthusiasts organize events, curate collections, and obtain funding for artistic initiatives. These people might have a barn full of looms stored up just to keep them safe. No intentions of weaving. They’ll keep them under lock and key until a weaver comes along. The enthusiasts will hang out at your booth for hours after making a purchase. They just “love your work”. When an enthusiast looks upon a coverlet they think “Marvelous, I want that one for my collection”! Alas, the textile is safe.

We need the Archivist. These people want to understand and record everything there is to know about the textile and tools. They will ask lots of questions and cheerfully document every detail of the answers. The archivist knows the artisan by their work and commits that life story to memory. Archivists are interested in dates, thread counts, weave structure, and geographical location for the sole purpose of sharing the details with future generations. The archivist has a book for every topic and is probably writing one at any given time. An Archivist looks at a coverlet and thinks, “Have I seen this one before? Let me check my records”. Alas, the knowledge is preserved.

We need the Artisan. The artisan lives to create. They are constantly seeking out new materials and being inspired by what they see. The artisan wants working knowledge. They see an intriguing textile and will automatically set about understanding how to adapt the technique in their own work. They constantly monitor the state of natural resources. The artisan will be the first to notice if something has gone awry in the ecosystem. It’ll show up in their work. They are enthusiastic about the creative process and often find themselves teaching. They always have a project in the works. When they don’t have an active project they are out of sorts and scouring their environment for inspiration and materials. Dreaming is a 24-hour phenomenon. The artisan looks at the coverlet and thinks, “Is that all handspun cotton? I want to try setting this up on my loom”. Alas, the tradition remains active.

Sometimes all we have to work with is a few marks on a scrap of paper to help us envision what a coverlet looked like. Working knowledge is so important in preserving the weaving tradition. I am thankful to artisans like Cassie Dickinson and Gay McGeary for sharing their knowledge and experience.

All it takes is one encounter. I was a college student before I ever saw the “real” thing. I’ve never been the same since. My eye searches for the fabric of a maker’s hand wherever I go. Each time I gaze upon a piece my heart sings.

Behold, This is Very Good.


7 thoughts on “A Spiritual Encounter with Old Textiles”

  1. such a lovely, heartfelt song of community and choosing beauty and continuity. Thank you for this soul food today.

  2. Beautifully traveled and worded and woven together!
    I appreciate your praising of all the roles and ways we learn and cherish and keep alive the knowledge of our shared human textile culture.
    Something to read again if I start to feel discouraged!

  3. Melvenea,
    You are a spiritual encounter. I felt “it” when I met you. I felt “it” when I read your spirit evoking words.
    Thank you for honoring and validating all of us, the Enthusiast, the Archivist, and the Artisan.

  4. Thank you for this beautiful account. I am inspired and encouraged, reading this.

    Thank you,
    (Oakland, CA)

  5. My little sister, you so on point with description of art, especially the art of weaving. So much of Created energy is placed in our hands, we are vessels delivering the message. We are Blessed, encouraging others to become Blessed and we “store‐up treasures” of Blessings to be shared. Thank you for your beautiful expression and blessing us with your experiences.

  6. Well put! If we don’t preserve these treasures, they will be gone forever. Thank goodness for the enthusiasts, archivists, and artisans in our community.

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