I am thinking about textiles this morning (no surprise there; my mind is often occupied with scraps and how to use them, how to turn a pile of small and easily cast aside remnants into a quilt or, well, something else). Thinking about the threads of life — having my grandson Arthur here over the holiday makes that particular thing ever-present — and the Moirai, the three Fates: Clotho, spinning the thread of life; Lachesis measuring each person’s allotted thread; and Atropos, ready to cut the thread at the end of that allotted time. I love the passage in the Odyssey when Odysseus has been recounting his adventures to an assembled party in Phaiákia and the king Alkinoös asks them to return in the morning for the ceremonies of leave-taking:
Our banquet’s ended, so you may retire;
but let our seniors gather in the morning
to give this guest a festal day, and make
fair offerings to the gods. In due course we
shall put our minds upon the means at hand
to take him safely, comfortably, well
and happily, with speed, to his own country,
distant though it may lie. And may no trouble
come to him here or on the way; his fate
he shall pay out at home, even as the Spinners
spun for him on the day his mother bore him.
— Odyssey, Book Seven
Our family will leave in a few days. I want to somehow spin something out of the rich and dense materials of living with them, amongst them. A quilt? A story? Something that manages to be both? Textiles have the capacity to do many things simultaneously. In the making of them, they satisfy at the very deepest level — and women have always known this, I think. In earlier times, women were given the work of making clothing, vessels to gather and hold food, to provide comfort and warmth using the materials at hand. For centuries it was easy to relegate this work to the realm of domestic utility but I think we know (and women have always known) how important an economic force this work has been. Continues to be in cultures where women still produce textiles (often cooperatively). This Christmas I gave Forrest and Manon a beautiful basket of woven and coloured reeds, made by Lydia in Uganda. I have on my bed a duvet cover made in a women’s workshop in India, dyed with indigo grown by the women, prepared by them, and then printed onto cotton using traditional techniques. I have a few of the blocks used in this kind of fabric printing and they’re beautiful.
Look at this ravishing coat of salmon skins with a plain and modest front and a beautifully detailed — storied? — back and you realize that women have always known that textiles can be message-carriers, they can be subversive. (“If people visited, women couldn’t look at visitors. Women sat at the fire, with their backs to visitors, but that back side was beautifully decorated—their backs said so much more than their faces.”)
I’m still in my dressing gown as I write this and looking down, this is what I see:
Years ago, a friend in Cornwall sent me this garment as a gift. It’s made of many many squares (scraps!) of salt-dyed silk. Its maker — a clothing designer called Denise Stracey – is obviously a woman after my own heart: each small remnant of some larger project has been arranged to make something utilitarian and also lovely. It’s lovely to wear. Silk against the skin, the morning made bright and lively.
I will be here
cross-legged in the dining-room,
logging triangles and diamonds,
cutting and aligning,
finding greens in pinks
and burgundies in whites
until I finish it.
There’s no reason in it.
Only when it’s laid
right across the floor,
sphere on square
and seam on seam,
in a good light—
a night-sky spread—
will it start to hit me.
These are not bits.
They are pieces.
And the pieces fit.
from Eavan Boland’s “Patchwork”, Outside History: Selected Poems, 1980-1990