rag dolls and woollies

rag dolls and woollies

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Astrologer

I've never been a big believer in astrology but I had my horoscope done once by a real astrologer. Her name was Katharine Merlin--really, no kidding--I knew her sister. I was in grad school at the time, studying research psychology, and she looked at her strange paper with all the weird symbols and then at me in a puzzled way. "I don't understand what you're doing," she said. "You're not a research psychologist. You're either a sculptor or a psychotherapist."

This was, of course, wrong.

Yes, I'd enjoyed sculpture classes at the Art Institute of Chicago (in the kids' division) but I was no artist. And I had already researched psychotherapy and knew it to be unscientific. It was not something I'd ever do. She pressed it for awhile, then gave up.

Three years later, I was on my first job in a community mental health center in the Colorado Rockies. I had blown off my Ph.D in research psychology, left with an M.A. and had been voted the happiest grad student in the department (because I was leaving). I worked in rural areas, including Wasilla, Alaska (!) and finally left it all to become a homeschool mom and run a kosher grocery store in the garage.

Off and on I tried sculpture, but nothing ever came of it. I can't do clay on my own. I need the atmosphere of a real sculpture class with lots of space, big tables, cement floors, garbage cans full of clay and a Chicago radio station playing in the background. Otherwise I just can't do it. So I figured, okay, she was right about the therapy but wrong about the sculpture.

Then my daughter had a baby, my thumb hurt too much to spin and knit, so I made a rag doll for my granddaughter. Yeah, people call that "soft sculpture," but that is way too hoity-toity a term for what I was turning out. So far I've made fourteen or fifteen of them and sold quite a few -- but they are soft toys, not soft sculptures.

Then last week I sat one of them up -- all by herself on the kitchen table. She wasn't leaning, propped or anything. She sat with her legs out in front of her, her hands on her knees and her head tilted, smiling at me.

I was stunned.

I walked around the table, studying her from the side, the back, the other side, the front again. She existed in the round (my early dolls had been pretty flat like a lot of rag dolls are). She had a presence. A point of view on life.

"Soft sculpture" is still too high-faloutin' for me. I can make a doll a kid can hug and sleep with. In a fit of pique it would probably survive getting smacked on the wall and stepped on. And really that is my goal -- to make dolls which can be used, socks people can wear, tallitot to wrap up in.

But she sat up by herself.  All by herself.  And it was an amazing moment.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Marking Darts and Pins in Your Mouth

Wow. I just got my sewing machine back from the repair guy. I had decided to get my money's worth out of the last oil job it received -- eighteen years ago -- and I must say it is like having a brand new machine! No jamming! The thread isn't breaking anymore. It sews zig zag again. Wow.

I can't sew without remembering how I learned. I was twelve and my best girlfriend's mother was going to teach both of us to make wrap around skirts. My eyes watered terribly in Vogue Fabrics on Main Street - perhaps it was something in the material that used to do that? We paged through Simplicity and Butterick, found our patterns, and tried to make sense of the bewildering array of fabrics.

I still try to make sense of the bewildering array of fabrics. I get cotton. I get canvas. I get lining material. But that's pretty much it. And now that I'm in Israel, all the info on the bolt is in Hebrew, so if I don't already know what it is, I'm not going to know.

Albie showed us how to lay out the pattern pieces. It seemed like part of that skill was to figure out how to put pins in your mouth and I was a dutiful study. She cut along the black lines, chewing her tongue as she went. She said it ran in the family. And although I wasn't family, I gave it a shot. Pin, baste, sew -- I got it. We went on to make sack dresses, skirts and shirts. And that was it. I never learned anymore from anyone else.

When my oldest kids were nine and ten, I became a homeschool mom sort of by accident. I was terrified by the incredible responsibility it involved and walked around gripping John Holt's Teach Your Own for support. He relates a great story about a man from colonial times who was a farmer, clerk, carpenter and I can't remember what all else. Holt pointed out that he didn't learn those things in school-in-a-building (as my daughter calls it) -- he learned it from others and by schooling himself. That story gave me courage to teach my kids. And homeschooling them was one of the most fantastic experiences of my whole life.

Here I am years (and years) later, sewing rag dolls for a living (sold five already!!). From Albie's lessons I learned enough to follow a basic pattern but also to embellish it. I can make up the dresses as I go (this surprised me).

And like the man in John Holt's book, I didn't learn it in high school or college. I was only twelve. My instruction was pretty casual; I learned by doing and watching. The whole idea of homeschooling and unschooling gets reinforced for me everytime I sit down and run that slickly oiled portable Brother machine.

And I see Albie. Pins in her mouth, chewing her tongue, making faces at the material. She was great. She sewed in the days when it really was cheaper to sew than buy new -- or used. There were patterns and piles of fabric surrounding her black Singer (with knee petal). The ironing board stood nearby and the room was comfortably cluttered with all the paraphernalia of a serious sewing woman.

With each of the skills I have there is a different mantra. I love watching violent movies while I spin. Knitting is always combined with visiting, talking and bitching. It's great in the car either as the passenger or driver (while stuck in traffic).

But sewing -- it's all about memories and snippets of conversation from long ago. When I see my sewing and my mess all over the house, I see her sewing and her mess. Pins in my mouth remind me of pins in her mouth. I can't even mark a dart without a memory.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Touching Everything

Learning to spin in New Zealand made me a REALLY BIG SNOB.Their wool was the best in the world and there was no debating that point. When we returned to the US, I HAD to have it, so my very kind, kiwi friend, Penny, would faithfully make trips out to various farms, sometimes on the North Island near Rotorua and other times near her home on the South Island to get huge bags of fleece for me. We'd have to go out to the airport to collect them and the customs people always gave us funny looks.

I'd get home and open them all at once. The heavenly smell of unwashed wool and hay filled the room. The stuff was incredibly clean because the sheep there run around all year on beautiful lush grass. The cat and dog would poke around - I've always been fortunate to have animals who never tore the stuff apart - and I would sink my arms in up to my elbows and come out fabulously greased.

There are a lot of people who don't appreciate this.

But spinners everywhere understand, and while they may not spin in the grease (and call it spinning in the dirt), I have yet to meet a spinner who recoiled in horror at the wonderful smell of new fleece.

Years later, when I met Estee, she started to work on me. "They grow beautiful wool here, too," she would offer and listen patiently while I explained this was impossible. "But there is lots of beautiful grass in Oregon," she suggested, "just like in New Zealand."  I should go with her to the Estes Park Wool Festival and consider buying little amounts of different fibers. "Just for fun," she urged.

This woman knows how to go to a wool festival. First you schlep your kids one year and bore them to death and they'll never want to go again. Once that is taken care of, the next year, you leave at the crack of dawn to get there right when it opens. The procedure goes like this: walk around and look at everything once and don't buy. Just look. Then go around again.

I got over being a snob toute suite. The fleeces were lovely! They came from all over, although usually the Western states. The variety was staggering. And not only wool, but alpaca! silk! bamboo! tensel! sari threads!

Lunch time. We would sit alone over sandwiches and coke and talk over every fleece, everyone's dyed mohair locks, those weird PVC pipe wheels (they were new then), bags of Ashland Bay blended fibers, and how nice the people were who sold the Cushings Dyes. We worked out deals - she often wanted brown wool, I wanted gray - we'd buy two whole fleeces and split them....and so it went.

What a marvelous day of freedom. Once we ran into a friend with five of her kids in tow.. We grieved for her....then hurried away to linger and dawdle some more......and TOUCH EVERYTHING. We stayed all day, and closed the place down.

Israel, alas, has nothing remotely like this and it's been five years since I've gone with Estee to the Wool Festival. Do you read spindlers at yahoo.groups? Well, whenever they start getting excited about the Sheep and Wool festivals in their areas, like the big ones in Maryland or Oregon or New Hampshire, I remember it all over again. Perhaps that's your situation, too. Perhaps like me you've moved far away from a Sheep and Wool festival.

I'll be back. I never consider a plane ticket -- to anywhere -- without checking out the fiber situation.

My daughter had to drive me all over Vancouver this last summer to check out fiber stores and she had to take me twice to Birkeland Brothers. I've got England in my sights and the next trip back to Colorado will be timed just right -- the second weekend in June.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Fairy tales and old hags

This Sleeping Beauty thing really ticks me off. You have to be an incredibly DUMB princess to prick your finger on a spinning wheel! It's just ridiculous. To prick your finger on the guide hooks, you'd have to go out of your way to stick your hand into the spindle itself. To get nailed on a distaff, you'd have to reach up (over your head if you're a small princess) and smack your finger down really hard on the top of it - and you might not be able to draw blood even then.

I tell nervous people to bring a sleeping bag if they're really concerned. But so far it's just my husband who dozes off at the gentle whirring sound.  And he always wakes up when I demand to know if he heard what I just said???

And that nasty old bad fairy hag who sat there at the wheel? Come on. Who are -- and were -- the real spinners? Why NICE people of course!

Generous, good-hearted souls created warmth from wool.  Most spinners I've met are sweet and actually rather modest people.  In older times, moms sat at the wheel while the little kids toddled around nearby. When my guys were just learning to walk, they used to pull themselves to standing by hanging on to the frame of the spinning wheel, and then give me lopsided, triumphant grins through the spokes.

Nobody stuck their hands into the moving parts of the wheel....well, not more than once or twice. And then it didn't hurt very much.  And I would stop the wheel just as quickly as possible, of course. And kiss their soft little fingers.

OK. OK.  I let it happen a couple times so they'd get the message and let me spin.

But the the truth is that wheels are -- and had to be -- child friendly. And they are also sturdy little things as well. My Ashford would get knocked over by kids and I'd pick it up and just keep going.  My Joy wheel takes an awful lot of abuse because it goes to demonstrations with me. It gets slammed on the door of the car as I shove it in the back seat, banged going up stairs, and bumped into walls when I'm in a hurry. Ashford Factory: Know This -- after more than 10 years, it is in great shape.(They're not paying me to say this by the way.)

So we spinners are nice folks,  just trying to keep the family warm. Yeah, there are fancy, schmancy designer yarns out there to spin, but isn't most of your spinning for the comfort of other people's ears, fingers and toes? The old hag routine just doesn't cut it with me.

And what about Rumpelstiltskin? He was a piece of work. That nasty little...well, so-and-so...used his spinning abilities to rip off this poor girl and ultimately try to steal her baby! Oh, come on.

REAL spinners use their skills to make beautiful yarns. Soft, airy woolen spun. Sleek, shiny worsteds. If they covet anything it's not other people's babies, it's the next gorgeous fleece, handfuls of alpaca or silk or bamboo. I do anyway. My friend Estee and I realized one day how we must have sounded to an FBI agent tapping our phone....

"I have a friend coming in from Nebraska with some fabulous stuff," she told me one day on the phone. "Can we get any of it?" I wanted to know. "Not sure," she said. "I going to have to go through some local people in order to contact her."  "OK, and be sure to find out how much she wants for a pound," I urged..

It sounded like a drug deal. And spinners readily admit their addiction! My current one is Cormo - have you tried it? Another spinning friend of mine says it looks like whipped cream. It's true. And it is so soft. I heard that the Japanese buy the entire Australian clip each year to make baby clothes out of it. I've been making Lorraine Goddard's nice Gansey bootee pattern (on Ravelry) out of Cormo and they're soft and squishy, partly because of all the nice thick stitches she designed into them.

So my watchword is - fight the Sleeping Beauty/Rumpelstiltskin rap whenever you get the chance. But don't just wait for the subject to come up --bring it up even when nobody else is talking about it -- I do.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

How the rag dolls happened

To say I never stopped spinning is, actually, not true. I did have to stop spinning for a while earlier this year. My thumb started hurting - right at the joint where it joins the hand, you know? I like to spin directly from the carder but that really does put some wear and tear on that joint. And it really started to hurt. And then it hurt up my arm.

Once I started using my hands to make a living I discovered a brand new thing to worry about -- my hands. Banging and smashing fingers, cuts and burns are now a cause for a lot of anxiety (and some nasty language, I admit) And when my thumb (and arm) started to hurt, I took notice.

I rubbed on BF&C and went to the chiropractor. I tried learning to spin with my right hand pulling the fibers. But I am left handed and it was tough. So it all pointed to knocking off the spinning......temporarily.

Sitting still however is not an option. I've never been able to keep my hands still and have been (at different times in life) a thumb sucker (quit), a smoker (quit!), an addicted coffee drinker (still living in the problem), nail biter (we won't discuss that), knitter, spinner, crocheter, weaver, sewer....and now we're talking about obsessions worth living for.

It turned out that sewing and all the associated activities did not irritate that joint. My little grand-daughter was just two and really a bit too young to appreciate a rag doll but that wasn't going to stop me! Do you remember Laura Ashley when it was a fabulous store and they made gorgeous children's clothes? My goal would be to dress the dolls in my best imitation of a Laura Ashley.

Ahhh!!! Quilt fabric! Lace! Ribbons! I can make up the dresses (using a basic bodice and skirt template) as I sew them. Of course, this doesn't translate into real clothes - my doll dresses are NOT comfortable, they only aim to look good.

The kitchen table was piled with gorgeous fabrics, which are, of course, only affordable for doll-sized dresses. The floor was a mess. There was no dinner (and nothing in the fridge even if you wanted to make it yourself). The house went to rack and ruin. My husband would occasionally look over this mess (he's really very tolerant) and remark dryly that I seemed to be "having too much fun."


The dolls became more sophisticated with knees, elbows, fingers and toes. With much help and encouragement from my friend, Debbie, I took a risk and embroidered a face with my own design. That one took an hour (okay, it seemed like an hour) but for sure the next ones were faster. Joyce said, "you need to make extra dresses." OMG - twisted my arm, she did! - and I went back to the cutting table and sewed more.

I hope a few of them might sell during the upcoming holiday season so I have an excuse to trash the house and make more dolls. I want to try noses and eye sockets next.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

How did you learn to spin? Here's my story....

Getting older for me has meant "finding my voice," and taking myself more seriously. After 30 years of spinning, knitting and more recently weaving, I decided (four years ago) to try to make my way in the big world with my skills. I would sell what I made, teach what I know, and demonstrate my age-old skills. And I have made it work! I can't support myself - but what I earn makes a big difference in our budget. A big difference. Our lifestyle now relies on my skills. It's quite an honor.

I have discovered that I have a lot to say about these skills I know - and lots more questions about what I don't yet know. It seems to me that any spinning blog needs to start at the beginning (as the Queen said to Alice, "then continue on until you have reached the end. Then stop).

So my beginning was "down under." We got married and went to live in Christchurch, New Zealand for a year. I learned to spin in the town of Rangiora in 1979. I saw this woman spinning and I was so obnoxious! I demanded that she show me right then and there how to do it.

So, irritated and annoyed, she let me sit next to her, and while she spun on her country Ashford (what else? this was, after all, New Zealand...), I spun on her Ashford traditional wheel. She had a "sheep shed" of sorts, which consisted of three walls, and a broken-down, destroyed old couch on which was strewn all these fleeces. She grabbed a handful - the Kiwis are famous for "spinning in the grease" - and handed it to me and started to spin. Well, I did my best.

She was wonderful. She smoked, swore and impatiently fetched out my lost threads (cigarette hanging out of her mouth). Only many years later did I realize how funny it was that she was so unlike our prim, grandmotherly image of spinners.

I was hooked but wouldn't admit it. I assured my husband who wanted to buy a wheel to take home with us (at the end of our year there) that I would never stick with it....probably wouldn't like it....it was too expensive...

But the next Hanukah, when we were back in the US and beginning our lives in Alaska, he showed up with a box. The traditional wheel. I had a week off of work and that's how I know how long it takes to get competent with spinning. One week. Forty or fifty hours. Because that is ALL I did for that week. I broke threads, I lost them, I couldn't get them started, I made thick and thin, so thick it wouldn't go through the orifice, so thin, it would get lost forever on the spool. I got greased to the elbows.

Only once did I actually throw anything, sort of in the direction of my husband who was reading the paper. He told me that first he finished Doonesbury. Then he put down the paper and said, in effect, that even mentally disabled women could do this during the Middle Ages and he was sure I'd get it eventually.

Well....... OK....... While I tried to figure out just exactly how to take that one, I got back to it. I got more greased, the cat slept in the pile of fleece, and I have never stopped spinning since.