Creative Independence for Fiber Artists

I’ve always been stubborn. When I was a young child, my favorite phrase was “Me do it,” and I’ve only become more determined with age.

I’m also a former scholar. So when I decided to seriously play with fiber, I set out to read everything I could find about it. I started out with teddy bears, moved on to quilts and then crazy quilts, then to embroidery and needlepoint, then to Kaffe Fassett, then to knitting, and then to crochet.

I fell madly in love with crochet for three years, until my wrist gave out. (But, fortunately, it’s finally starting to recover.) By then I was spinning wild yarn on a drop spindle, and since spinning is usually discussed with weaving, I found myself playing on simple frame looms. Although I’m not promiscuous, I now love spinning and weaving as much as I love crochet.

I couldn’t have done any of this without my beloved books and magazines. Except for a few needlepoint classes and a crochet conference, I’ve learned just about everything I know from print and three videotapes.

About being taught…Before falling in love with yarn, I was an impassioned schoolteacher. I’ve spent some of the best times of my life in a classroom, usually as a teacher and occasionally as a student.

But the trouble with schools and classrooms is that they are inherently conservative. They exist to pass on previous knowledge, and they are also used, sometimes quite viciously, to socialize students. Unless the teacher is truly remarkable, students learn either to think like the teacher or to rebel like the other rebels.

The same holds true for less formal fiber classes. The woman who taught those needlepoint classes taught us to become dependent on her. We each bought a different painted canvas, and then she would choose the fiber and tell us what stitch to put in what place. No stitch guides, no discussion of design, not even a mention of needlepoint’s glorious history – just “Do this here.”

The crochet conference was a lot more fun. What could be better than spending a three-day weekend with hundreds of other people who share your obsession? I also had the very great pleasure of spending all of my class time with the brilliant British crocheters, Sylvia Cosh and James Walters. They are two of the remarkable teachers I talked about earlier – although they teach the techniques they’ve developed, they also gently encourage individual experimentation. Just looking at their work up close was enough to send me home inspired!

But this was a conference sponsored by a guild, and the officers held tightly to their party line. They wanted to quickly move crochet into professional and artistic territory, but since I’m a populist at heart, I wanted to decrease the competition and increase the celebration of everyone’s work. When I dared to say so publicly, I earned the president’s undying enmity.

Don’t get me wrong – I think professionalism is admirable and artistic growth sublime. But I also think competition is brutal, and I’d hoped that a modern guild would want to encourage and celebrate all of its members.

I should have known better. Groups are also inherently conservative and exist to further the interests of the people who run them.

Creative independence is partly conservative, too, because we all draw on the past to learn skills. Many of us also delve into the histories of the crafts we love to discover the work of our foremothers.

But we become creatively independent when we absorb as much as we can and then move on to develop our own ways of working. In the Spring, l998, issue of Interweave Knits, Linda Ligon writes about Peruvian and Bolivian knitters. In her wonderfully witty way, she says she’s mystified by how the women knit so creatively, using virtually every known knitting technique to make strikingly beautiful and original pieces.

There’s really no mystery, of course. These women are so thoroughly at home with knitting, so thoroughly skilled and confident, that it’s second nature for them to knit the way they do.

Think about the great cooks you know. At one time they followed recipes, like the rest of us, and for many of them, reading cookbooks is a way of life. But they’re so experienced that they’re able to take a little of this and a little of that and come up with a delicious meal with very little effort.

Or so it seems…Because what we don’t see is all the thinking that goes on. And this is the key – first we become so skilled that our technique is almost automatic, so we can then put most of our effort into thinking.

When I say “thinking,” I’m actually talking about the creative process. It can be as quick as stir-frying a meal from leftovers or as complex as designing and sewing a quilt. What matters is not that we become Martha Stewart or Nancy Crow, but that we find an authentic way to express ourselves.

This is the joy of creative independence.

This is also a joy of being alive.

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