(Note: this post is about twice as long as most. Good story though!)
Many years ago, I owned a weaving studio that catered to helping people who lived on the riverbanks of mainstream culture. The people I worked with were from many different corners of society—gifted home school children, young people with physical or intellectual disabilities, busy moms, retired men and women. Most of them had busy lives but they were no longer punching a clock, or never had done so. What they had in common was curiosity, inventiveness, and the willingness to try something new.
FreedomWeavers Studio was a nurturing haven for handwoven creativity. The main room had six SAORI looms set up in a circle, and most days you’d find strangers becoming friends there. I also traveled to nursing homes and residential schools to bring this wonderful creative practice to the residents.
One such project took me to the local veterans’ home, where men and women live out their lives in a healthy environment that provides food and care for body and soul. The recreation director hired me to conduct a six-week program with the vets. My challenge was to create a project, and a narrative, that would capture their imaginations as well as hold their interest for all six weeks.
I knew I had to introduce the project in a way that helped them get past initial feelings of resistance. The “machine” (the floor loom) looks complicated at first glance, and these elderly men were not about to look foolish in front of their fellow vets. For some, their very identities were still tied to those days when they had to be tough, when hierarchy reigned supreme. I needed to honor that as I opened a new door to exploration as well.
I needed to create a custom warp long enough to last for the full six weeks, a warp whose colors and textures provided an inviting foundation for discovery. I chose red, white, and blue, but not the traditional flag colors. Instead, I intermingled threads of burgundy red, muted beige, and navy blue.
Before I go any further, let me introduce you to the basics of weaving, as I did when I met the veterans. In the photos below, you’ll see a collection of black threads that are connected at the front of the loom. That is called the warp. (Note: the first four photos shown here are of a current project I am working on. The photos from the veteran’s project come later.)
Those threads are then threaded individually through the reed (which looks like a comb).
Next, they are threaded, one by one, through the heddles, which are suspended wires with a hole in the middle through which the thread passes.
Finally, these warp threads go over a wooden bar at the back of the loom and are wound onto a roller near the floor.
As you see here, the black threads, or warp threads, are held under tension, about as tight as a bouncy trampoline. It’s labor-intensive to “dress” a loom, and happily, I find it quite meditative. It must be done before any actual weaving can begin, and there is no way to rush it. A full-width warp has approximately 300 threads, each of which I get to handle three times during the setup. This “dressing the loom” process often involves many cups of tea as well!
The warp setup through the reed and heddles creates the mechanism which allows the other set of threads, the weft, (blue in the first photo above) to pass over, under, over, under the warp threads in one easy motion. If any of you remember as a kid making loopy potholders on a frame, this is essentially the same process: interlocking threads that are perpendicular when they pass one another.
Now, back to the story.
I arrived at the veterans’ home with the many hours of “dressing the loom” already completed back at my studio. In the recreation hall of the facility, I found a good place to set up the loom, create a gathering of chairs, set up a couple tables, and display a generous selection of weft yarns for them to choose from. One by one, the gentlemen, and a couple ladies as well, entered the recreation room, some walking slowly, some in wheelchairs, a few with walkers. I smiled and watched their faces which registered everything from curiosity to clear skepticism. When everyone had gathered round, I sat down with them by the loom and began my introduction.
“I admit it was a challenge to create a meaningful project for us to work on together,” I began. “There are so many stories in this room, such a wealth of memories, and talent, and experience. One thing this community has in common is love of country, which each of you served so generously in the past. That is why I chose the colors of our flag, red, white, and blue, as the warp that will hold this weaving project, and this community, together.”
“Added to that uniting element, though, is the colorful diversity of each of you. Without that, we would have a plain flag without the breath of life animating it. So here on the table are dozens of different colors and textures of yarn, and each of you get to pick whichever threads are pleasing to you. No right or wrong, this is you adding yourself to the fabric of this community. I bet we will see a lot of variety here, once we get going.”
During my demo, the mechanically-minded vets came forward to investigate and admire the loom’s ingenious design. The confident ones soon gave it a try and, little by little, the more reluctant ones were encouraged and assisted by the now-experienced weavers. Some people chose to use just a single color for their weft contribution. Others blended several colored threads on a single bobbin, creating a section of weaving unique to them.
Everyone was given total aesthetic autonomy except in one area: SCISSORS. The colorful weft threads were carefully cut by me every time a new weaver sat down, but I remained the official Keeper of the Scissors. The reason for this was simple; the warp is the very foundation of the woven cloth’s existence. A cut warp thread meant a gap that could not be easily repaired. Cut warp threads on the edges could easily turn a 24-inch-wide project into a 20-inch-wide one, with yards and yards of wasted, loose threads piling up sadly on the floor. Thus, my constant admonition: Never cut the warp. It’s what holds us all together.
Vets who had previously been aloof by choice found themselves helping their fellow vets who had a little trouble following the steps. The SAORI looms are known for the adaptive accessories that are available, so a person who uses a wheelchair, or has use of just one arm, can still fully participate. Although SAORI weaving can easily be done by a solo person, we set it up as “team weaving,” so three people were operating the loom at the same time, building community as well as fabric.
Toward the end of the six-week residency, I was told that a few vets had requested seating changes in the dining room because of the new friends they had made during our project together. That still pleases me to this day.
On the final day of the residency, we had an “unveiling parade”, where the finished cloth was slowly unrolled from the loom, revealing yards and yards of one-of-a-kind fabric.
A wider point applies as well.
As a lover of metaphor, I readily see the connection between choosing the essential warp colors for a very long art project, and carefully choosing what core values, your personal “warp,” you want to embrace so that the common threads of your life stay front and center in your daily choices.
My warp threads for this year, 2023, are three shades of the word “Downsize:”
1- I’m successfully releasing the excess body weight that has kept me from activities I love in recent years.
2- I’m downsizing my personal possessions by 50%, an ambitious goal. Now, only three weeks into the new year, I’m seeing great progress in this plan to discard and donate as much as feels right. I’m exhilarated by the freedom found within my suddenly-spacious living quarters.
3- My final downsizing project is related to my calendar. I want extra space in my schedule too, extra time to breathe and have life itself invite me in new directions, moment by moment.
So, my “red, white and blue” warp this year is Downsizing my body, my home, and my commitments. All three will give me more breathing room, which I crave more than anything.
What about you? What might your warp colors be for this year?
I believe it is well worth a good ponder, especially if you are feeling mildly restless or dissatisfied. It’s your beautiful life— once you decide on your basic warp colors, you will be free to weave in all sorts of texture and ornamentation and joy.
There are many ways to begin this gentle exploration. I love pondering the question, “If I had a year to live, fully healthy, where would I focus my time and heart?” It’s an exhilarating way to start a new year, full of potential. I wish you all the best in freeing up your heart’s desire.
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