Grief like this

Our birth/death calendar has quite a few February entries, some new this year. Hello brand new Carolyn Grace, and goodbye dear sweet Frankie. As time goes by I am more and more amazed with all the different ways that grief presents itself. So big and so small. So brutal and so gentle. With my Opa and Julie my life stopped each time, paused, skipped, stuttered and started back up wholly different. What I grieve of them is their love of me, selfish as that sometimes feels. They loved me unconditionally, they reminded me often, they held me and then they were gone. I am left loving them in a world where I am a little less shielded, a little more vulnerable. It is a loss I feel in all things, and one I’m used to.

On the anniversary of Matt’s death we didn’t go to the woods as planned. We got things done and ran errands and cooked dinner and we stayed just a few feet away from one another all day, gently orbiting. I grieve Matt differently and deeply. Without him in it the world is noticeably less. I felt safe with Matt alive, even two states over, and he was there for me in ways I didn’t know I needed- tattooing me when I felt lost or lonely, bringing over rabbits and teaching me to butcher them when I was hungry, driving me home when it was dark and I was alone, and making a ballpoint pen move with his mind when I was in desperate need of some wonder. He did his level best to set Tavi and me up together and now our sadness and loneliness over his absence commingle.

This time last year I couldn’t read this poem, and now it’s tucked in my mind like a touchstone.

Beaver Moon - The Suicide of a Friend
Mary Oliver

When somewhere life
breaks the pane of glass,
and from every direction casual
voices are bringing you the news,
you say: I should have known.
You say: I should have been aware.

That last Friday he looked
so ill, like an old mountain-climber
lost on the white trails, listening 
to the ice breaking upward, under
his worn-out shoes. You say:

I heard rumors of trouble, but after all
we all have that. You say:
What could I have done? and you go 
with the rest, to bury him.

That night, you turn in your bed
to watch the moon rise, and once more
see what a small coin it is
against the darkness, and how everything else
is a mystery, and you know
nothing at all except
the moonlight is beautiful-
white rivers running together
along the bare boughs of the trees-

and somewhere, for someone, life
is becoming moment by moment
unbearable. 

From 'Twelve Moons', Poems by Mary Oliver

Elizabeth Zimmermann

A few days ago I saw an Elizabeth Zimmermann quote used to push the idea that the online knitting community should be talking about knitting and only knitting, not racism. It made my heart sink, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot (my reaction- not the bull-thistle belief that knitters should only talk about knitting).

Image found  here

Image found here

My initial response was “How could you! That’s not what she was talking about! Slander!” and I was mad mad mad because I feel such tenderness for EZ- she taught me to knit as much as a dead person can teach a living person to do anything with their hands. But as I mulled it over I realized- I have no idea what Elizabeth Zimmermann thought about racism. I have no idea how she felt about gay people. As she was a white, British born, rural-Wisconsin-dwelling person of my grandparents’ time it is probably safe to assume that she was not taking on any anti-racist work or out advocating for LGBQTIA folks or we would have heard about it (though I do think she may have fallen a little left of the curve, and we know from The Opinionated Knitter that she and her husband were staunchly anti-Hitler). And while she does not specifically dive into her thoughts about racism in the knitting community*, she took a strong stance against the hand knitting industry of her time, standing up to magazines and big names and even yarn suppliers and eventually going her own way and dismantling (or rather- rewiring) the system via typewritten newsletters and PBS and wool yarn shipped out skein by skein.

What I am trying to say is not that I believe EZ was racist, but rather I don’t know. And I realize I have made a mistake, and assumed without much thought that the Opinionated Knitter’s unwritten opinions probably aligned with mine, because I agree with so much of what she has written about knitting, wool, bread, and the beauty of midwestern nature. What I realized when reading that IG post was that other people, people whose beliefs I do not align myself with, assume the same thing.

I have two thoughts here and I am having a hard time spitting them out. The first is that Elizabeth Zimmermann’s example encourages knitters to stand up against what they see as wrong. It in no way limits knitting conversations to yarn and needles. While she did say: “Properly practiced, knitting soothes the troubles spirit, and it doesn’t hurt the untroubled spirit either.” nowhere did she say that the proper way to practice knitting is to shut up about all other matters- in fact her other famous quotes encourage knitting while listening to the news, knitting while engaging in interesting conversations, etc.

My second thought is a reminder (for myself as well) to practice caution while holding up white people of eras past in admiration. I’ve learned this as a lesbian- idolizing this dead artist or that writer of long ago and then stumbling across their horrible homophobic beliefs is a gut punch every time. I’ve had to parse this out with my own family members. What I’ve learned is to be specific- to admire someone’s prose or fashion or crosshatching rather than blindly lift up the whole unknown identity that comes along with it. So here I am saying I adore Elizabeth Zimmermann’s knitting patterns, I admire her merging of knitting, painting and writing. I agree with her about wool. But I have to stop my praise there, with the known, and cannot in good faith extend it to how she treated the grocery clerk, or how she interacted with knitters of color or how she felt when finding out someone she knew was gay. And no matter how much I wish I could ask her, I can’t.

*If anyone out there knows better than my guesses, please correct me.

P.S. In my researching I found this thesis/dissertation that was interesting!

Indigo and Woad

Woad botanical drawing. Image sourced from  here.

Woad botanical drawing. Image sourced from here.

This past week I began to dig a little bit into woad dyeing*. I’m starting much as I did with indigo- absorbing any and everything I can get my hands on so that I know what practice will work in my unconventional dye space (read: either my kitchen where nothing can be too toxic, or a shared basement with lots of space and drains but no running water or electrical outlets and limited heat and storage). After reading a few blog posts and shop blurbs I am finding that I am going to have to do more confronting of my own ancestral fuckery than I had anticipated in this research**. The rhetoric I am running into around woad is that it is the plant was used to achieve blue dye before indigo. There’s a period at the end of that sentence. That period says (but does not say) “… in Europe.” The period, placed where it is and leaving out what it does, implies that woad is the older of the two blue dyes available, that it came first, that Europe has a stake on blue (or even on indigo). When in fact, dyeing with indigo is an ancient practice in Japan, India and West Africa and is only (relatively) new to the scene where white people are concerned.

So, I have taken a step back and settled into a history lesson. I’m reading Women’s Work, the first 20,000 Years, by Elizabeth Barber, but I am impatient for dye knowledge and we are just dipping into the concept of spinning fiber, so I am skipping ahead and cracking open my dye books. First and favorite is Wild Color, by Jenny Dean. There are two large sections on woad in her book- a sort of profile on the plant itself, and a page on method/recipe. And before I go further- let me say that I have the 1999 edition and it has since been re-released, so I can’t speak to any changes in language since then. Both sections devoted to woad describe it as a European dyestuff, similar (scientifically) to indigo, and falling out of favor once trade routes opened up and indigo became available in the 15th century. Note: There are moments in the longer history section where the author forgets to give context and dips into a European perspective without acknowledging it. The overall takeaway is that the practice of dyeing is at least 6000 years old, and the oldest evidence of such comes from India, China, parts of South America, Egypt, and Siberia- with credit for mordanting going to the Egyptians. European dye practices existed quite early as well, but really take off after access to (and trade with) the above regions is established.

My second favorite dye book- Harvesting Color by Rebecca Burgess- does not mention woad, so I’ll skip it this time (but if you are looking to dye with native plants and you live in North America, it’s a good resource). The third book in my collection is The Modern Natural Dyer by Kristine Vejar. The other two are so practical for my personal dye practice that I rarely crack this one open. Woad gets a brief mention here, right under indigo: “Woad was used to obtain the color blue until indigo became available in the 1500’s, and by the end of the 1800’s woad was rarely used”. Insert your own “in Europe”, and note too, that the 1500’s (or 1400’s) saw the establishment of trade routes making indigo accessible to Europe and the 1800’s saw the invention of synthetic indigo, wiping out the need for a local alternative. The history section is told from an almost entirely unacknowledged European perspective, with statements like: “In ancient times, only royalty was allowed to wear purple***, and the color came to signify great power” that forget to mention that in other cultures this was not the case. Meh, and more meh than I was expecting and I’m bummed about it, to be honest, given my big old crush on AVFKW.

So, what I have learned so far is that indigo and woad have a history that becomes deeply entwined once indigo comes to Europe. I’ve also learned that the most common rhetoric to be found is that woad was THE blue dye until indigo popped up on the scene from places unmentioned, which is negligible at best and a flat out lie if you want to be honest.

My next step will be digging into the history of woad in Europe (and specifically Germany) pre-indigo trade. And ordering some seeds (which I will grow in a bucket so I don’t accidentally introduce woad to the larger Chicago area).

*If you are wondering why I am researching woad- I’ve given up my indigo practice. If you are wondering why I gave up my indigo practice, I wrote about it here.

**As a white person of European, and specifically German descent, I should know this by now.

***A fun fact: purple was such a rare and special color in European textile dyeing because it was harvested by literally milking sea snails in the Mediterranean. Here’s an article about it.