Sage

Sage has medicinal properties and has been used traditionally in a range of applications, e.g. to settle and upset stomach or for throat infections. I love sage tea, it is a staple in my herbal mixes.

Some cultures burn sage to clean places. My latest papermaking project is about overcoming a difficult situation, healing, redemption. I am currently not set up for burning things, so I added dried sage to the paper pulp. It makes the process really lovely – I kept thinking of food…

On the paper, it adds little specks. It also makes is a bit lumpy, so I wouldn’t use it “just for fun” or to make it prettier. But pretty wasn’t the point here.

specks of dried sage on handmade paper

How I make paper

I’ve recently started paper making. The process is actually quite simple. You cut up paper into small snippets (a shredder would also work but I don’t have one). You pour boiling water over it and let it soak for a few hours.

boiling water incoming… You can see how colorful the scraps are.

You blend all of it or part of it with a stick blender. I leave some bits more chunky as it gives more interesting texture. Don’t use a blender you also use for food, keep it separate.

You then take that slush and dilute it with water so it’s a bit more runny and “muddy”. I use a bucket I already had, it is big enough to accommodate a postcard-size frame, so that’s the size I am working with right now.

This is my whole papermaking studio (the cloth is underneath the sheet)

Then it’s like panning for gold. You put the frame in with a scooping movement, shoveling out a bit of the muck in the frame (you can add fun bits like flowers, threads, copper leaf…). Let water run off first. Then pop onto a piece of cotton (I use a strip of old fabric on a vinyl sheet on the floor). Pop it there mushy-side down. Dab the back with a sponge or old rags until it is dry enough to come off the frame. If it doesn’t want to come off, it isn’t dry enough. Let it dry completely on the cloth before messing around with it (it will peel off neatly once dry).

I’ve started playing around with bits of coloured paper which adds variety (I had post-its from mapping something out), and I’ve played around with copper foil and silver foil (cut it up finely).

An example of the outcome. You can see I only partially blended it. (the lumpy bits are dried sage, I’ll write more about that later)

I have no clue what I’m doing (and it’s exciting)

There is beauty in figuring out a technique. There is less pressure if you don’t know. Things might work out, or they might not. But as it’s the first time, it feels more OK if things go wrong.

There is also beauty with not knowing the established boundaries and limits you learn as you learn a new technique and its codifications. You can figure out what this new thing wants to be, and how you want to use that to express what you want to express.

I’ve started making handmade paper. Using the “shitty first draft” printouts of my next book. It’s been lovely to see them transformed. I added gold and copper leaf to elevate it.

Papermaking is easier than I thought. I watched a few videos on YouTube. Starting costs are fairly minimal (I need the frame, and I had to get a stick blender).

Not every sheet worked out and I’m currently limited to postcard size because of my setup. More to come. My next idea is to start making paper cutting with it and to incorporating the papers into collages. Stay tuned!

handmade paper (still drying)

A beginning, a muddle and an end (resolution)

That’s how I heard the classical story structure described in a writing class. This is not just true for stories, this is also true for life in its twists and turns of creation and recreation and change. It is also true of the creative process itself. Colum McCann recommends “arse in the chair” as the main tool for writing and for “staring down the blank page”. Also applies to other artistic pursuits.

It’s nice when it all comes together in the end, isn’t it? We can see the skies open, hear the orchestral music piping up. For me, it’s very physical, that clicking into place. Like my vertebrae just re-stacked themselves and I can stand straight again after being down in the weeds. Even when the resolution just happened to a thing in my head, it feels of major significance each time.

How does it feel for you?

I just had that over the weekend with the current book I’m writing. Cracking metaphor and therefore structure, and how good that felt that it is now coming together (stay tuned for launch info here). The muddle in the middle feels uncomfortable. We try this and try that, nothing is completely wrong but nothing is quite right either.

This isn’t wasted (although it feels like it at times). This is research, prototyping, seeing what lands and how, and how we and the rest of the world feel about it. A lot of this is semi-hidden, this is not the stuff we make a big fuss about, and a lot of it doesn’t work. At all. We have to make a little fuss though, rope at least a few well-chosen folks in to start the testing. That always feels a bit weird. And then we keep getting feedback, more ideas, we exclude some versions or options that didn’t work.

We keep our ass in the chair. We show up and do the work. And at some point, things will click into place. And that feels like the most beautiful thing in the world.

(this post will simultaneously be posted here as this encompasses both sides of my practice)

On abstraction (next level)

This follows on from here. I am exploring out loud how my experiments in abstraction are going. I am no longer attending the Mussar class so my current experiments are less bound by a set curriculum and more by starting with the body.

Shapes. In my body. I notice it is easier for me to hold shapes in my body when looking to draw than it is to hold them in my mind. I need that physical memory.

What shape is that, how does it make me feel, where does that feeling sit? What shape does it have? Some start with the idea I am exploring (very much the case with the Middot), some shapes just start with the shape as itself (the shape is always itself).

A lot of the shapes seem to have to do with my wrists and arms. Before the pandemic, I loved exploring with different movement arts and practices. Social Presencing live and virtually with Joan O’Donnell. I practice Yoga and took adult beginner’s ballet lessons for a while. I miss that.

Left uninstructed, my movements seem to originate from my wrists. Particularly from the right one. I’m a left hander so the right hand isn’t normally where my focus lies. Maybe that’s why it gets out of the mind-cage first…

Feelings sit within my torso (rarely including my head). And there seems to be something about the shapes my arms can make that completes that, that makes it make more sense. It isn’t complete without the arms. The legs matter to an extent, but more to hold up the torso as I’m doing this rather than as a feature of the shape itself.

I need to then be in that space for a while and feel the feeling, and feel how it feels to have that integrity of the outer shape matching the inner one for a little bit. Eventually I can then try and play with shapes on paper until I recreate something that resonates with the shape I’ve just been, the shape that’s in me. Sometimes it’s the angle, the curve, the architectural structural composition. Sometimes it’s an image that came up while I was in that shape that looks different but that nonetheless came from that shape.

I’m only starting with this.

Patience. Early 2021
Resilience. February 2021
Honour/respect. January 2021
Humility. early 2021

On abstraction (first attempt)

I’ve been experimenting with drawing abstract concepts lately. I’m working on Mussar Middot (soul traits) as part of a class where we are meant to reflect on one for a longer period. This was an interesting new step for me, I’ve never deliberately sought to represent abstract concepts before (except for some bits of sketchnoting).

This is a whole lot more about drawing what I feel compared to what I see. Seeing on the inside rather than the outside. Meditating on a concept or an idea is part of my practice, how that feels in the body, holding an idea without clinging to it. Paying attention to what comes up. And then finding a shape for it, something I can capture. The last step is a new addition, and I find that immensely gratifying.

Repairing socks. A reflection.

I’m doing a course on Circular Economy right now, and as a part of that, we are asked to repair something and write up some reflection points.

Some of this might feel weird and formalistic, I have kept in some of the criteria I needed to hit for the official assignment submission to give you a taster of what that was about – those are the text bits in blue.

Extending the lifespan of a product is one of the ways to live more sustainably. This may require repair. We are not used to that anymore the way our parents or grandparents were. My grannie used to tell me about the lady who would darn 20den stockings (she was a waitress and was expected to wear hosiery, and that was a huge expense back in the day). Or the repair shop for umbrellas. Hard to imagine today, these sort of things just get replaced immediately.

The course assignment asked us to repair something and to reflect on it alongside certain criteria. I didn’t have any mending that needed doing when this assignment came due, but I had a pair of knitted socks that needed a “refresh”, so I went with that.

Diagnosis:

Socks were a bit too short (shrunk a bit after being washed in the wrong program – oopsie)

Tip was a bit worn

Solution:

Cut off the old tip, and knit new one to new required size

Tools needed:

Scissors, tweezers, knitting needles, big needle, 4 ply sock yarn

Time for repair process (all of the below will be x2 as it is a pair of socks, both get same treatment):

5 sec to cut off old tip

2 min with tweezers to pull out thread scraps to free up loops

3 min Pull out thread end one by one to free up loops and put them on needles (neatest way to catch them)

Knit new tip (1-1.5 hours) using new 4 ply yarn

2 min to weave in ends

Total about 1.5 hours. Per sock.

Difficulties encountered:

If socks are very old and yarn quality is not great, they can start felting up in the hard-worn areas like heel and tip. This makes pulling out the old thread very cumbersome. It also makes it very unyielding to put the loops onto the needles as it won’t stretch as it normally would. After the first row with the new thread, it all works swimmingly, but it is a pain to start. Might be easier to pick up the loops with smaller needles for the first row, but I didn’t have any on hand (lockdown).

Catching loops from “out in the open” is not easy and you can get lots of dropped loops you need to pick up from rows below and fix one by one, which is a pain. As I routinely mend socks that way, I’ve come to realize that the best way to catch the loops is to sacrifice one more row and catch the loops one by one as you unfurl one more row, so that’s what I’m doing now.

So far, so good. If you’re a knitter, this will make sense to you. If you have no idea about knitting, this will largely be word salad as you won’t know what things are and you won’t have context. A lot of life is like that, we only notice these things when we are out of our depth. And then we either get curious, or annoyed. There are so many parallel universes on this planet…

Here is the new sock by the way:

Now you can see why I wanted to keep the socks. I love the lace bit, and I love the color. This is the new sock with the new tip, now in the right size.

Next up: Repairability criteria. We got to design these as we saw fit, taking inspiration from the Self-Repair Manifesto.

Repairability criteria:

1-5 scale, 1: difficult/bad, 5 easy/optimal

  1. Easy access to product:
  2. Only standard tools used
  3. Easy to get replacement parts
  4. Time spent on repairing it, and proportionality
  5. After repair, will it function as new

(these were not the ones I developed in the previous exercise, I assembled these 5 to be useful to the specifics of the repair)

Scores and comments:

  1. Easy access to product: 5. There is no packaging, the sock itself is all there is.
  2. Only standard tools used 5: Scissors and needle are household standard items (or available in a supermarket or pound shop. Knitting needles will be standard for all knitters, so if a knitter repairs their own socks this will be easy. If someone got these socks as a gift but doesn’t knit, that would require a specialist shop to source (score would drop to 2). But as I’m a knitter, it’s a 5 for me
  3. Easy to get replacement parts: 5 (if you’re a knitter), 2 if not. See above for knitting needles, same rationale
  4. Time spent on repairing it, and proportionality: 3 Repairing the sock takes a little longer than knitting the original part the first time, as it is a bit more area (lengthening the sock) and you need to add the setup time. I repared about 1/8th of the total sock surface. If you are not a knitter, the hourly wage this would take (assuming UK minimum wage) would be more than buying cheap wool socks in a shop, so it would not be worth it. If you are a knitter, saving 7/8th of a sock by fixing 1/8th that needs fixing is a useful investment of time. I’ve had socks where the initial part was 15 years old that I kept repairing in parts every few years. Still, it’s work.
  5. After repair, will it function as new: 5 If you use the same coloured thread, this will be invisible from the outside.

Overall repairability score (average of 1-5): 4.6

What could be done to improve repairability:

Make the picking up process of the loops easier. Either by investing in smaller needles for that process, or by playing around with the material to make it glide easier. Wool often reacts similar to human hair, so I might experiment making it glide better by applying hair conditioner onto the dampened area (conditioner would come out easily in the wash). I haven’t tried it yet but I’m curious now to give it a go when I repair the next pair.

–> This might, of course, be a daft idea (if you’ve tried it tell me how it went).

Is it worth it? It depends.

I like these socks and now I can keep wearing them, if experience with similar socks serves, probably another few years before it might need more repairs.

I also know how to knit, and there is considerable escalation of commitment bias as I knitted the original ones. After all that time, what’s another hour or two to keep them…

On the other hand, if you calculate a so-called living wage of 9.50/hour and consider that this takes between 2-3, if you want warm feet (and shops are open), you can for sure buy cheaper socks out there.

There can be sentimentality. Not for these ones but for about 15 years I kept a grey knitted sock shaft with various updated lower halves. The original one was started by my grannie. She passed away in the late 90s and I learned a lot of knitting from her. There is no ROI for my grannie. There never is. For most things in life there isn’t, there are no metrics. That doesn’t mean they aren’t important.

I like knitting. I like the tradition and I like that the output is useful and – at least to my eyes – beautiful. “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful” — William Morris would have liked my socks (if not, my Grannie would have sorted him out. I would have loved to hear that conversation.

Knitting is a good counterweight to a day job spent in front of a screen doing online things where the results aren’t tangible or immediate. Smooshing wool with my hands is bliss. And I have warm feet.

Let your practice guide you

I often don’t know what I’m up to when I start. Start anyway. At some point, your practice will start guiding you, things will want to go somewhere, a color will want to be there, a curve will want to happen, and will birth another one. The way materializes with each step you take. Trust that.

On showing up

Sometimes I sit down, and I want to make something, but I don’t know what. Or sometimes I sit down and want to get away from something, but I don’t know how. With my paintings and collages, I rarely start with a fixed idea.

I don’t have formal art training, but I do have other forms of practice. Showing up, and being open is how it starts. It’s how anything starts, really. I try to get out of my own way, which is probably helpful as well. Getting out of our own way frees up a lot of space. In that space, new things can happen.

This is from the Tashlich series. I wanted to capture an emotional state after a ritual. It added another element to the experience. I understood a bit more. That felt helpful.