“Before the slide and before bank erosion and flooding…”

frozen fog

Last night I snipped the basting threads that once held together the 3 layers of my most recent quilt. It felt ceremonious. I’ve been trying to make a list of the quilts I’ve made over the years, the 34 years I’ve been doing this kind of sewing, and this is 36. At least. There might be ones I’ve forgotten. And while I was sewing this quilt, I was working on the edits of my forthcoming Blue Portugal and Other Essays, filled with rivers and quilts and the colour blue; and I was listening to news of one climate or health emergency after another. The world felt dangerous and sad. I sewed, thought of how time has lost its reliability (in a way), that rivers flood in spring, that summers are warm, autumns are crisp and cool and good for road trips in my favourite parts of the province—Highway 8, between Spences Bridge and Merritt; the area around Lytton and Lillooet; the golden grasslands of the southern Interior— winters mild-ish and wet, with some frosty nights and maybe a skiff of snow. Spring again, everything in its order. I sewed and thought and my quilt became a palimpsest. A bedcover, yes, but also a record of how I felt about the floods, the rivers, the state I find myself in as an aging woman, attentive to my own heart-beat.

corner rabbit

In spring, a snowshoe hare grazes behind our house, eating dandelion leaves, clover, and hovering by the (rabbit-proof) fence around the vegetable garden. In summer, we swim in the lake near us and in the ocean as often as we can, sometimes beyond the eel-grass with its communities of infant fishes, its blue carbon, wading heron, crabs. In fall, we watch for the salmon to enter the creek near our house, and all the birds associated with that process—the dippers, the mergansers at the mouth of the creek, hoping for stray eggs to wash downstream, eagles waiting for spawned-out carcasses to feed on—as well as the waiting coyotes and bears. And in winter, I work on projects indoors, sewing the year into cotton, this year as near-record snow drifted around my house.

eel grass corner

It feels a little desperate to be sewing this year, a little sad, as though I am somehow hoping that by paying this attention to such small things, we might be spared fires, floods, drought, that I can keep the world safe. I suspect it’s too late. But last night as I snipped the basting threads, I knew I’d made a record, a praise song, an archive of thread, cotton, memory, and a few tiny buttons to anchor the beginnings and the ends of the red lines of river that act as a map of what was, what I loved, and love still.

Turn the page quickly. Remember the rivers you have walked along, and into, and how you were held by water green and lovely. How your grown sons still remember the Nicola River, your grown daughter the ride you took by horseback to Salmon River and its memory of the sockeye runs before the Hell’s Gate slide in 1914, a river you have also driven along on your way to Salmon Arm, its silvery riffles so beautiful in sunlight. Before the slide and before bank erosion and flooding, agricultural run-off and the heavy feet of cattle making their way to water. (So many fish on this page, its wide waters.) How you stop at Lytton each trip to marvel again at the marriage of rivers, your husband’s arm around your shoulders.
                           (from ‘How Rivers Break Away and Meet Again”, Blue Portugal and Other Essays, University of Alberta Press, forthcoming, 2022)

back in the river

how it begins

momen

Last week I ordered some sashiko thread, the red spool you can see in the photograph. I have been longing to make something a bit more textural than the quilts I’ve worked on lately and I remember how satisfying it was to stitch the quilt I called “A Dark Path”, to commemorate an accident I had about this time of year in 2018 when I fell on ice in Edmonton, cracked my coccyx, and set into the motion the process of retinal detachment. I wrote an essay about making the quilt and I made the quilt to work through the territory (emotional, visceral) in the essay. Sashiko means “little stabs” and it’s mostly a technique for repair and making a garment sturdy through those repairs. (I wrote about the process here.) That quilt was not intended for a bed or even the back of a couch where someone reading or watching television might reach for it to drape it over shoulders for extra warmth. There’s nothing cosy about it. It should be hung from a dowel but so far I haven’t done anything with it but fold it and tuck it into my mother’s camphor wood chest.

on the line

When I ordered the sashiko thread (2 spools) last week, I tagged on an order for a package of Japanese momen, strips of loosely-woven cotton fabric intended for sashiko work. The package arrived earlier in the week and I opened it, utterly taken by the beauty of the ten pieces, all different, all various blue prints. What would I make, I wondered. I have some other blue fabric that has been sitting in a stack, waiting, waiting. I realized at once that I don’t want to cut the momen. I don’t want to waste even a thread. So that means strips of some sort. Yesterday I got out a scrap of paper and began doing the basic arithmetic to determine the best way to use these new (and kind of expensive) cottons with my cheaper but still beautiful stack to build a quilt top I’d be happy stitching over the winter. Stitching with red sashiko thread and the ridged sashiko needles I bought for the dark path. One of the anticipated pleasures is that sashiko is a plain stitch, a running stitch, which is what I do anyway, but its beauty is in its strength and maybe not so much its uniformity.

Anyway, these are the things I’ve been thinking about and then in yesterday’s mail, a wonderful gift.Beth Kaplan, a writer I’ve become close to via the wonders of the Internet, sent me this issue of uppercase:

uppercase

The whole issue is devoted to quilt and textile art and although I’ve only begun to read it, I spent an hour yesterday just looking at the images. Some of them are just so ravishingly beautiful that I felt that tingling, both in my hands and in my imagination, and I wanted to make something new. I’d begun the arithmetic, yes, for a quilt using the Japanese momen, and I’d envisioned horizontal strips, the momen supplemented with other cotton, but having looked at the wildly original work in this magazine, I realized I could shake up my ideas about structure and maybe try something more original myself. So in the night, awake, the moon lovely and silver in its first quarter, I thought, Why don’t you turn your horizontal strips and make them vertical? Why don’t you insert pathways between them, using deep red, a colour you will need in winter as the last rose hips are taken by squirrels and the tulips are only a promise in the pots in the greenhouse? Why don’t you try something you haven’t done and why don’t you see where it takes you? Why don’t you.

And that’s how it begins.

ragged stitches

imperfect

It’s counter-intuitive, to sew ragged stitches along the raw edges of fabric scraps. Everything I know about sewing (and I am careless enough as it is) tells me to do this differently, to apply the patches of various silks and cottons and linens in the way I’ve always done: sewing the wrong side of the scrap to the body of the quilt and then turning it, ironing it flat, using small regular stitches to quilt the layers together. But this time I am exploring imperfection. Here’s one example I keep in mind as I sew, a boro quilt of ethereal practical beauty:

boro

What is perfection anyway? I think about that when I swim. I am clumsy, awkward, but I swim a kilometer three times a week and it feels wonderful in the moment, and after. My writing is always raggedy-edged, unfinished (in a way), shape-shifting as it goes along. There’ve been times when I was courted by bigger publishers, hoping for a book that would sell. I remember having lunch with one and coming home in great excitement to tell John what suggestions had been made (I’m being careful here!) to turn something I’d already written in something else. I could do this, I said. And he said, Yes, of course you could. But would it make you happy? You’ve already written the book you said you wanted to write. When I thought about it, I realized I had. My happiness with it had been in the process of writing, of following the beautiful thread that led me along roads I’d never known were there, into mazes and out again, not knowing the destination. What had been suggested to me was a trail well-mapped, direct, not exactly full of possibility, but maybe interesting enough. I’d know exactly where I’d arrive before I even began. Did I want that? Even if I could make my sentences as bold and as strong as I could? It turned out I didn’t. I’m curious enough and stubborn enough to want to do things my own way. It’s not that I think everyone should follow this process. I’m really glad that others don’t because in books, as with quilts, I love the huge range of texts and textiles that result from all kinds of approaches and pursuits. I think there’s room for them all.

It’s counter-intuitive, to sew ragged stitches along the raw edges of fabric scraps. But I’ve got these new needles, sharp and true, and it’s a pleasure, though sometimes a nervous-making experience, to run them along and through a small scrap of blue cloth. What will this become? What will I become, making it?

needles

 

 

little stab

corner

Sashiko is a Japanese term meaning “little stabs”. It’s a running stitch used in embroidery or quilting, a running stitch, useful for structural work: repairing and strengthening clothing and other textiles. I’ve been making quilts over the past year in which I use a running stitch and heavy cotton thread, almost string really, and I love to see the results. I love to feel the results, a very satisfying texture as my needle binds three layers together — the top of the quilt (often a heavy linen I’ve dyed with indigo), the batting (and I mostly use organic cotton for this), and the backing. For the first little bit, my fingers get sore. Over the summer, for example, they are used to weeding, turning taps, hanging laundry out. The needles are often reluctant to pass through the layers easily, though I’ve discovered that there are actually special needles for sashiko, polished steel with fine grooves running their length. I’m going to order some. In the meantime I have some sturdy chenille needles. They’re sharp, with big eyes to hold the heavy thread.

The photograph above is a corner of the quilt I made for my grandson Arthur’s 3rd birthday in October. He was visiting with his parents and brother from Ottawa and so I snuck into his room and put the quilt on his bed while he was having breakfast. When he went into his room, he saw what I’d made him: a single-cloth bedcover with a loose spiral of salmon taking up 2/3s of the top and then 3 constellations outlined in shell buttons across the top 1/3. I used deep blue cotton for the body of the quilt and saffron yellow to border it. With John’s help, I chose constellations visible in our western sky on the night of Arthur’s birth: Cassiopeia, Orion, and Cygnus. Stars and salmon: constants here in our wild corner of the earth. We sent Arthur binoculars for Christmas and he told me on the phone that he’d seen Cassiopeia on Christmas night. We saw Orion on December 29th, on our way home from a party, and it reminded me that we took Arthur on a starry walk, as John once took our children, just before bedtime on the last night of his visit. Orion was stretched out across the sky, the 3 stars of his belt as clear as anything, and Cygnus was flying the Milky Way. I love to think of him sleeping under the quilt that remembers the fish in a nearby creek and the stars that help to guide them home.

A little stab is a good thing to think of this time of year when the months wait to unfold in front of me, the baskets of fabric wait for their moment, and the needles with their generous eyes are willing to carry thread in and out to strengthen the structure.

the doorstep of winter

Yesterday I planted the garlic box, four varieties all tucked in for winter. And today I intended to tidy up and winterize some other parts of the vegetable garden. But somehow the basket of prepared fabric was calling. So this morning I prepared an indigo dye vat on the long cedar bench outside

vat

and have just done the first dip of several different kinds of tied and knotted lengths of cotton and linen. The stuff is oxidizing as I type. The last time I dyed with indigo, the final colour was beautiful but not deep blue.

constellations

I’m not enough of a chemist to understand why. I know that the colour comes from many short dips rather than a long sustained time in the vat. And maybe I don’t really care. Today I thought I’d do ten dips of 20 minutes with a 30 minute period of oxidization between dips. We’ll see. Here’s a length of prepared arashi—it means “storm”— and I

first arashi dip

have to use a long plastic tub because the pvc pipe that the fabric is wrapped around is too long for my vat. The last time I did this particular technique, the end result was lovely in that the cloth remembered its turns.

arashi

I’ve also been penciling salmon shapes onto a vintage linen sheet (a single bed size) and if I have time tomorrow, I’ll wax them and then dip the sheet too. I’ve been wanting to make a quilt using full lengths of fabric rather than patchwork and using a kind of sashiko or functional stitching to bind the layers together. Red thread. So this might be the opportunity if the waxed salmon work out the way I hope they will. Sometimes I find myself filled with an urgency to make things with my hands. Not writing but something solid and durable. I can’t paint, can’t draw very well. But there are other ways to immerse myself in colour and texture and on the doorstep of winter, I’m hoping to do just that.