…and yes, the river is moving as I write”


Yesterday it rained. What better time to prepare fabric for indigo dye? I’ve been meaning to do this for weeks but there were enough nice days that I wanted to be outside as much as possible, working in the garden, planting tomatoes in pots on the upper deck. Getting fabric ready to be dyed is a long process. This time I’m not using any of the sewing resist methods. Mokume or woodgrain is one I’ve done in the past; you use a running stitch in parallel lines, or curving lines, and then gather the thread tightly. At least I don’t think I’m going to do this. I still have many yards of unbleached cotton waiting for me to decide what it might become. And today is rainy too.

Mostly what I did yesterday was wrap fabric around pvc pipe, using coarse hemp string to bind it. This results in the resist dye pattern arashi or storm. The last time I made a vat of indigo and spent a few days outside dipping and resting the prepared lengths, I think I loved the arashi cloth the most. See what happens with the areas bound by hemp string? I think of this as eel grass or rivers seen from a great height.


What I love best is taking the cloth into a 3rd dimension with stones or string or pvc pipe. I love to see it become a sculptural object. In the bottom of the basket on the left you can see a lumpy form created by pebbles fixed into place (with elastic bands) on a diagonal grid across 2/3s of the cloth (an old damask tablecloth, with stains, given me by a friend “to do something with”) and then the ends twisted and wrapped with string. What will it look like when dyed and unwrapped? I have no idea. Angels or birds or splashes of white.


I realize as I do this that I am more interested in the process than the result. I wrap and think and wonder. I know enough to understand how amateur my work is with indigo dye. I have no illusions about its importance as art or even skillful craft. But to be immersed (literally) in a long process of preparing and standing with a stick to push cloth into dye, to turn plain cloth into something else, something more, is about as thrilling as anything for a woman to do on the edge of the continent while the world is crazy with virus and death and grief (and I am crazy with those things too). To walk through the days after with stained wrists, a basket of deep blue cloth scribbled with memory, waiting to be taken to its next life as a quilt or curtains or simply to be folded in a basket.

In her book Memory on Cloth: Shibori Now, Yoshiko Iwamoto Wada wrote about this process:

When the cloth is returned to its two-dimensional form, the design that emerges is the result of the three-dimensional shape, the type of resist, and the amount of pressure exerted by the thread or clamp that secured the piece during the cloth’s exposure to the dye. The cloth sensitively records both the shape and the pressure; it is the “memory” of the shape that remains imprinted in the cloth. This is the essence of shibori.

I won’t mix my vat today. I need a run of nice days. But yesterday’s work with the string and cloth and my reluctance to do the complicated mokume or even to fold cloth in  accordion pleats and clamp wood along the length to make itajime or window resists seemed to be the right thing to do. And when I woke in the night, I realized why. I am working on a long essay about my grandmother’s early life on the Red Deer River. She lived on the south side and then, later, the north. I am trying to figure out the details of each period, how and why she moved, and yes, the river is moving as I write, is the source for so much of her daily life. Water came from the river, brought up in tubs on a sleigh in winter and maybe a wagon in summer. A neighbour who washed her clothes in the river and drank the water died of typhoid fever on the dirt floor of her shack. And I have wrapped fabric—old damask tablecloths, rough cotton, some scraps of coarse linen—onto pipe to make rivers, the “‘memory’ of the shape that remains imprinted in the cloth.” How to make the language of this essay do that too? To spread itself across the page, first one bank of the river, then the other, a bridge in the distance, the far hills. Language to carry the dimensions of her life, of mine, her time, mine.

a river nearby


After a long day of medical adventures for my poor husband, it was a relief to sit on our deck under the vines and talk to our granddaughter Kelly, who turned 4 yesterday. “It’s my real birthday today,” she confided. Her party was last week so this was worth knowing: that you can celebrate twice (maybe more) but only one day is the actual day you become officially a year older.

Her birthday party included a bike parade, all the kids riding (or gliding, because her bike is a balance bike) with balloons and streamers on their handlebars. And there was also a treasure hunt. A neighbour told them that pirates had been known to come up the North Saskatchewan River to bury their treasure along Mill Creek Ravine, just a half a block from Kelly’s house. And you know how landscapes change over time, particular rivers and ravines. So there was a hunt for this treasure and sure enough, right under the porch of Kelly’s house—gold coins! And even better? There was chocolate inside.

I was not surprised to learn that pirates had been in the vicinity. It was foretold, after all, by the Arrogant Worms:

I hear in North Alberta there’s a band of buccaneers
They roam the Athabaska from Smith to Fort McKay

One of the photographs that arrived by email shows Henry on his bike in their backyard. We gave Kelly this bike for her second birthday. Now she’s moved up to a bigger size and it’s perfect for her brother.
Looking at him, I remembered one of the handful of photographs I have of my father as a child, also on a bike (well, a trike), and also near a river. The Red Deer, not the North Saskatchewan, but their body language is a shared language, across almost a century. My father looks like he would have been 3 or 4 in this photograph:
dad on bike.jpg

He’s wearing a sweater, which suggests this might be fall, his birthday, October, 1929? A boy who might also have dreamed of pirates, of treasure. I wrote about those photographs in Euclid’s Orchard:

I have a handful of photographs from the 1920s, taken on what I suspected was the land where Anna and Joseph settled and that my grandmother must have inherited after Joseph’s death during the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic. A funeral for Julia, the first child born to my grandmother and her second husband, my grandfather John Kishkan, in 1921 and dead of diphtheria in 1923. My father, Anthony Kishkan, known to his familiars as Tony, on a small trike in a rough yard with a dog. Another of my father in a little car with some wash tubs stacked behind him and bleak hills beyond those. I wondered if this was the land. Dry, dry, and a river nearby.

Sometimes people are too far away. You want to be part of the happy group eating cupcakes among children in a yard in Edmonton and you are instead driving down the highway to spend a day holding your husband’s hand as he is hooked to monitors (which showed that his heart is just fine so whatever else it might be, he has a strong heart). They are far away in time (your father on that bike, the dog barking at something arriving or departing behind him). And they are gone before you asked the questions you always meant to ask. But your father is also present in the body of that small boy on his bike. The half-smile, the collar turned up.