A Needle Pulling Thread

I saw this mentioned on the blog of ‘Did you make that?’ earlier this week, and have just gotten round to listening to it. ‘A needle pulling thread’ is a collection of stories about the role of the sewing needle in our lives, and the programme introduces us to entrepreneurs, quilters, farmers, and prisoners amongst others. I’d really recommend a listen if you get the chance – I’d never before considered how a needle could be so important, and potentially harmful, to lives around the world. Here we learn how the needle is instrumental for memories, livelihood, friendships, rehabilitation and relaxation. Fascinating stuff.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04p7xls

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Work in progress – a viewpoint from the middle of the pile

Work in progress. I’ve got quite a lot of that at the moment! Writing, marking, knitting…. And I’ve realised that they’re not all that different. This is my pile of knitting WIPs:

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Here’s 7 of them. The jumper in the middle was technically finished, but I’ve decided I want it to be longer so it’s been moved out of the wardrobe and is hanging around waiting for me to be interested in it again. The white lace shawl, top left, is my long-term ongoing project of remaking the Shetland shawl. It’s so fiddly that I rarely pick it up – it’s been in this state for months now. I just need to make myself do it. Then there are the two obligatory single socks (I hate doing the second one – severe second sock syndrome always kicks in). Bottom left are some gingerbread men awaiting eyes and some hanging ribbon in time to decorate the flat for the festive season. Then, just because I didn’t have enough to do, I decided to cast on a cowl last night out of some gorgeous alpaca that I bought for a different project that didn’t work out so well. The red yarn in the top right isn’t technically mine, but is standing in to represent some of the Christmas gifts I have one the needles. Yes, there are more unfinished objects which haven’t made the picture. 10 WIPS in total maybe? I hadn’t realised there were so many ongoing projects until I sat amidst them all last night.

I do feel bad, I want the items to be finished so they can be used and loved as they’re intended to be. But equally I quite like having lots of projects on the go. Each one of these fulfils a different role and makes up a different component of my love of knitting. The lace shawl for instance is something I can do when I want a bit of a challenge, when I’m home alone and just listening to music or sitting quietly for a bit. At the other end of the spectrum is something like the jumper- just miles of stocking stitch in the round that I can do without thinking or looking – whilst watching tv or semi-supervising dinner simmering away. Socks make good travelling projects – simple, but portable. The gingerbread men are a bit of fun, and the cowl makes me feel like I’m using up stash yarn whilst giving the gratification of a quickly completed project. So depending on my mood or context, I’ve always got the perfect project to pick up! It just means that everything takes that much longer to finish, for they’re always competing with other projects.

What I’ve noticed though is that my academic work has started to resemble a pile of WIPs as well. I’m in the ‘writing-up’ stage of my PhD now, the part where it all gets serious. When I started writing I was using Microsoft word to type up chapters or sections of chapters, each in their own file. I was finding it quite muddily and slow, and so when I read about a programme called Scrivener designed to help with the writing process, I downloaded it at once. It suits me perfectly. All of my bitty little documents are now in one place, and it looks much more like a thesis. What is great about Scrivener though is the ability to focus down on small sections (whether that’s a chapter or a paragraph) and look at them in isolation or in context. So when I suddenly come across a quote that would be great in my literature review whilst working on my methodology I can quickly zoom to the section I want to insert it in without having to quit the programme and trawl through my documents to find the literature review and the appropriate section of it. (That’s a really bad description – I’d recommend looking at the Scrivener website if you’re interested, plus it does loads more cool stuff that I won’t even attempt to explain here.) Since switching to writing with Scrivener I’ve found myself to be more productive, but also a lot more jumpy. Whereas before I tended to try and focus on one chapter, I now switch between all the chapters. It’s good because I’ve started treating the thesis as a whole. But, like with my knitting projects, I’m not getting anything finished. I’m jumping between sections and chapters depending on what suits my mood or the situation. So if I’m not feeling particularly motivated I might label up all my figures in the almost-completed chapter 1. And then if a flash of inspiration strikes, I’ll go and fiddle with the structure in chapter 3, before adding in a linking paragraph at the end of chapter 2. I think I’m getting stuff done, but it’s quite difficult to tell for sure when you’re sat in the middle of the pile.

Anyway, I need to go and address a pile of marking. Which I’m also mid-way through. The biggest challenge is going to be ignoring the call of these newly-acquired beauties:

New yarn I’m thinking mittens?!

The Great British Sewing Bee

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So last week we were treated to three episodes of the Great British Sewing Bee for Children in Need. I love the Sewing Bee. It’s informative, the people are always really nice, and that haberdashery? I just want to jump straight in! It’s different from a lot of other things on television too – no sniping competitors like ‘the apprentice’, no talk of the ‘journeys’ people have been on like the big talent shows, no special favours given to age or beauty, and no ‘life-changing’ sums of money up for grabs, just a humble token prize and some lovely new friends. Do I sound jealous? I think might be.

The reason that I say it’s different from ‘most things’ because it is quite similar to the Great British Bake Off. Let’s face it, they couldn’t even think of a unique show title! As with GBBO we’ve got a male and a female judge (with the same initials), there are three challenges, the judging is somewhat subjective, and frequent attempts are made to ‘educate’ the audience throughout both shows. One interesting difference between the two is the setting – GBBO is in a tent in the grounds of an English manor house, GBSB in a gritty old London textile factory. Whereas GBBO gets pretty bunting and meadow flowers (plus the occasional squirrel), GBSB gets bare brick work and strip lighting. I sort of get it. But I sort of don’t. I’m just not really sure why anyone would bake intricate pastries in a tent, I think that’s the problem.

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Bake off – lovely meadow and pastel kitchen stations

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Sewing Bee – Gritty urban warehouse and exposed brickwork

The thing that does bother me about both of these programmes (but particularly the sewing bee) is the issue of time. In each episode participants (I just can’t get on board with ‘contestants’) are given a very specific time slot in which to make their garment – ‘You have 2 hours to make a skirt!’, ‘1 hour to modify this shirt!’, ‘5 hours to make a coat’, ‘GO GO GO’.

Arrrrgh!

The sociologist Richard Sennett once commented that:

in contemporary capitalism, production is based on speed; fast, short-term transactions; and constantly shifting deadlines and tasks – it is world where ‘craftsmanship sits uneasily’ (2006: 105).

For me this tension really comes to the fore in the Sewing Bee. The craft of sewing is about applying skills, learning to work with a variety of fabrics, stitches, materials, and other notions. And yet, good craft – well executed skills – take time. They take time to develop, and more often than not, time to do well. Now, I supposed the assumption behind the sewing bee is that participants have already put in the time to develop a library of skills which they can in some way just extract and ‘apply’ to the task presented to them. As those of you who read our piece on skilled practice will know, I’m really not a fan of this continual reinforcement of a mind-body divide. But that’s a topic for another post. My specific gripe here is with the way Sewing Bee participants are allocated the minimal amount of time for each challenge, and thus have to work as fast as they possibly can. Each task ends with a countdown, often forcing sewists to leave raw edges on their work, or parts of the garment missing. I remember being particularly cross about this in the first series of the Sewing Bee when Tilly Walnes didn’t get enough time to finish her beautiful blouse (from a self-drafted pattern!) and was (in my opinion) unfairly ejected from the competition. It just all seems to go against what craft is about.

Craft, for me at least, is about taking the time to exercise care in the construction process. It’s not simply about an active human subject imposing her will onto a piece of wood, fabric, or metal, but instead cooperating with, co-producing if you like, a finished article. The maker needs to get to know the material, listen to what it wants. A sewer, for instance, needs to know the drape of her fabric, know what its strengths and limitations are, work with grain lines, work around (or incorporate) imperfections… Even if on paper it is ideally suited for making a specific garment, in practice it might not want to be that. Knitters often talk about waiting for their yarn to tell them what it wants to be, and I think the same is true of materials other than yarn as well. Such a process of communication takes time – just as you get to know people, you need to get to know the materials with which you work.

The fingers that craft can only go as fast as they can go. There is no switch to flick for full power, no gears for them to move through. And yet rather than feeling like they are failing at being efficient, or desperately trying to shave a few minutes off of making time, most craftspeople learn to accept and inhabit this slow space in which things grow logically and methodically – one stitch, one cut, one piece at a time. Particularly for those of us who craft for personal pleasure (rather than a for-profit business venture), craft is about finding joy in the process of making rather than a focus on reaching the finish line. It thus becomes intensely personal – finding what works and what doesn’t (whether someone does an hour here, 20 minutes there, or a huge 7 hour crafting binge, what methods are effective, what shapes and colours suit), creating something that is valued for its absolute uniqueness and being able to take the time to do it as you want.

Not for the Sewing Bee contestants though. It’s all about that finish line, trying to please other people, and direct comparisons. It has to be watchable television, yes, but it needs to have substance too. If it’s supposed to be about racing through life as quickly as possible then I guess it succeeds. But if it’s supposed to be about craft and crafting a lifestyle, well, it’s not a craft that I recognise.

‘Craft’ is everywhere

So maybe it’s just me, and maybe it’s something to do with the fact I’m in the midst of writing-up my thesis, but I keep seeing ‘craft’ everywhere. So much craft that I’m not even sure I know what craft is anymore, or what I even thought it was in the first place. In many respects this is a strange gripe to have with the world; I adore all things crafty, and it’s great that other people seem to share that interest too. Besides, one huge justification for choosing craft as the main focus for my thesis was its increasing ubiquity. But it’s the way in which craft is being taken up by advertising and corporations that I’m finding particularly interesting at the moment. I’ve got three examples that I’ve spotted this week to illustrate what I mean:

1) Fat Face clothing

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I walk past the window of Fat Face every morning on my way into uni, and this sign appeared in their most recent window display. Pyrographic techniques have been used to construct the wooden sign, which actually is quite a beautiful piece of work. It’s a crafty double-whammy – the sign itself being crafted, and the writing talking about crafting clothes. But why? ‘Craft’ has become something of a charged word in recent years, seemingly to imply a careful and considered process which is conducted slowly and respectfully. For many people it also still stands for the notion of ownership over an entire process – from designing, through to making, and eventually selling. But Fat Face don’t do any of these things. The designers design, the garment workers sew the clothing, and retail outlets sell the items. Furthermore, I very much doubt that any of these processes (especially the middle one) are conducted slowly and respectfully. It seems more likely that there will be targets to meet and standards to maintain. For although they rank as one of the more ethical high street brands, Fat Face’s CSR policy is somewhat vague. There’s no mention of living wages, or the environmental impacts of production, and the cotton currently in use is not sourced organically. In fairness, Fat Face have signed the ethical trading initiative (ETI). This has to be taken with a pinch of salt, however, for although it’s a step in the right direction it is far from a guarantee of truly ethical practices – indeed companies such as Primark and GAP have signed it too.

To me the sign is also trying to get across the notion of a Heideggerian ‘authentic’ life, one in which the wearer of these garments can go out and experience the world in its raw reality. They’re not clothes made for lounging around the house in whilst watching television, but clothes made for going on ‘adventures’ and generating a more authentic relationship with the natural world in.

2) Kettle Chips

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Apparently they’re ‘lovingly crafted’. I first saw this advert, with a crisp packet having been carved from wood, in a magazine. A little online research reveals that there are three designs in total – one ceramic and one glass. I must admit, it made me think. Can crisps really be crafted? Apparently all of their crisps are hand-cooked, so perhaps that’s why they felt the word necessary – as a sort of nod towards William Morris’ distrust of mass-production. Still, I’m not convince ‘crafted’ is the right word here. Nice advert though, and a beautiful carving.

 3) Specsavers

Specsavers

Slightly different take here with the company not using ‘crafted’ in their product description, but featuring some pretty snazzy knitted hats instead. Spotted when reading the metro one morning. To be honest, pretty much anything with knitting catches my eye, and these hats were no exception. There’s also a shark and a bear in the series. I want the shark one.  Unlike the other two ads I don’t think this campaign is claiming too much with its use of craft. The fact they’ve used knitted hats does give a nod to the wearability and fashionability of wool at the moment, but it doesn’t strike me as having the undertones of authenticity, slowness, or care that the other two adverts seem to. But it is an example of craft literally following me everywhere. I’m sure there will be more examples to follow soon!

The City of Briswool

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The City of Briswool is a project to knit, crochet and needlefelt a huge model representing Bristol. Led by Vicky Harrison at Paper Village Arts this project has been in the making for over twelve months and has so far involved 90 makers, 4,000 hours of work, 10 workshops and hundreds of cups of tea! When the model initially went on display in May 2014 at Paper Village it managed to attract 4,000 visitors in just 10 days. The pictures I’ve included here are from that first exhibition, which really was a fabulous sight to behold. Since May the model has continued to evolve as people work on new contributions and expand upon the existing landscape. This weekend (4th and 5th October) the model is getting its second outing – this time at M-Shed. It’s open on both days from 11-4 so do pop in and have a look!

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Over the course of the weekend a series of workshops will be running called ‘how to craft a city’. If you want to join in you need to be able to knit or crochet, just bring along size 4mm hook or needles. Workshop attendees will be:
* Making Colston Hall and The Old Duke pub as a group
* Helping to sew together Queens Square, King Street, and Park Street
* Able to join groups such as Briswool makes Easton
* Assisted with identifying and designing their own contributions to the model

The photos here are just a taster of what will be in store, expect new contributions and a bigger city in a bigger space at M-Shed!

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The Colourful world of Kaffe Fassett

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I’ve had a few great yarn-based days out this summer, and have been vowing for months to blog about them. This is the first one, from back in July when I managed to get to the American Museum in Bath to see the Kaffe Fassett exhibition. I read about it online whilst I was in Australia and was pretty excited to visit. Kaffe Fassett is such a big name in knitting, so much so that I had heard about him even before I really began knitting! His work has come to be well known for his rich palette of vibrant colours as he launched a fight against the grey and beige world. For me, however, Kaffe Fassett has always been one of those figures in knitting that I’ve been aware of, but not engaged with. His designs have always struck me as a bit shapeless and 70s, and not something I myself would want to make, let alone wear. But when the opportunity came up to learn a bit more about what he does, I jumped at the chance, keen to figure out what the fuss was about if nothing else.

I persuaded my partner to come along for the day, and after getting a bit (well, very) lost trying to find the place we were thrilled to be greeted by the most beautifully yarn bombed tree in the courtyard.

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As most readers of this blog will know, I started yarn bombing myself almost 4 years ago now. And truth be told – I’m pretty over it. Or I was, right up until I saw the cacophony of colour that shrouded this huge centrepiece! What a lovely welcome on a sunny day :-) The exhibition was housed in an unassuming building just beyond the tree and worked to plunge visitors into Kaffe’s colourful world from the moment they stepped over the threshold.

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The lighting and the layout of the exhibition was beautiful – greeting visitors with a recreation of Kaffe’s Klimt-esque studio before leading you around a series of sections which showed off a variety of his knitting, needlepoint, and quilting work. I thought the green room was particularly lovely and I especially enjoyed the collection of quotes adorning the back wall. I have a feeling some of those may work their way into a certain thesis… They gave a nice insight into some of his working practices and provided a chuckle to boot.

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Although I enjoyed the exhibition, I was disappointed with the lack of information that was provided to visitors. I expected to learn lots about KF, his career, his methods of designing, his preferred techniques, the story behind the garments…. but there was barely anything. It felt like a missed opportunity if nothing else. It also meant that the exhibition felt a bit disjointed, like a collection of things rather than a story.

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I went, dubious about the fashionability of Kaffe Fassett’s creations. I came away equally dubious. But, what the exhibition showed me more than anything else, was that these garments are (or were) more than fashionable – they’re pieces of art in their own right. And you know what…I might just add an extra colour or two to my next knitting project.

The Colourful World of Kaffe Fassett is on at the American Museum in Bath until 2nd November 2014. More info can be found here. I’d love to know what you think of it!

AAG 2015 CFP: Spinoza and Us

Myself and fellow PhD student Tom Roberts are hoping to organise a session at the annual AAG conference next April to explore ideas surrounding Spinoza and the body. If you’d like to take part then we would love to hear from you! Details as follows:

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Call for papers, AAG Chicago 21-25 April 2015

Spinoza and Us

Session abstract: It is well-attested that there exist many ‘Spinozas'; the abominable atheist, the vital materialist, the romantic pantheist and the political radical. It is these rich theoretical starting points which ensure that Spinoza’s work has had an enduring relevance to philosophical and geographical thought, particularly in relation to conceptions of politics and ethics.

Geographers have previously mobilised Spinoza’s thought through concepts such as affect (Deleuze 1988; Dewsbury 2011; Massumi 2002; McCormack 2008), vitalism (Bennett 2010; Roberts 2012), politics (Connolly 2002; Hardt and Negri 2005; Ruddick 2010) and naturalism (Sharp 2011; Grosz 2011). In this session we want to address a concept that runs transversal to all of these themes: the body.

“A body can be anything; it can be an animal, a body of sounds, a mind or an idea; it can be a linguistic corpus, a social body, a collectivity.” – G. Deleuze (1988, page 127).

We feel that Spinoza’s concept of the body holds particular relevance in light of recent trajectories which explore the constitutive role of the nonhuman in political and social life. These include, but are not limited to: object-oriented ontology, speculative realism, new materialism, post-phenomenology, ‘more-than-human’ methodologies and new forms of participation.

In this session we hope to encourage a focussed engagement with Spinoza’s philosophy as a means of re-situating bodies, and what they can do, within contemporary human geography.

We would like to invite contributions that address or relate to:

 – The status of ‘the human’ in human geography

 – Technological bodies and the agency of nonhuman objects

 – Incorporeal bodies and affects

 – Ethology and Power

 – Nature and Spinoza’s ‘naturalism’

 – The politics and ethics that emerge in the processes of composing bodies

Please submit abstracts of no more than 250 words to Tom Roberts (tom.roberts@bristol.ac.uk) and Joanna Mann (joanna.mann@bristol.ac.uk) by Friday 17th of October.

Participants will be contacted by 21st October and will be expected to register and submit their abstracts online at the AAG website by 31st October 2014 ahead of a session proposal deadline of 5th November 2014. Please note that registration fees will apply and must be paid before the submission of abstracts to the AAG online system.

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