The way I work, part 1

So far in 2019 I feel like a car careening down a hill. Chicago has finally thawed, and it is as though I woke from a slumber to find a quarter of 2019 had already passed.

Ironically, in December I was determined that 2019 would be the year that I grit my teeth and grow my business, no excuses. The growth opportunities have appeared. I have said yes, and now I alternate between having my nose to the grindstone and breathing through a paper bag. Don’t feel sorry for me. This is exactly where I want to be, or rather, these are the opportunities I want to have. With a little luck and perseverance, I will get through the other side with a ton more experience and level higher in skill. But I’m not going to promise it will be graceful.

This week I hit the pinnacle of constant motion, and from past experience I know that means that I need to take a breath, look around, and create a more intentional, less reactive plan of action.

Nothing grounds me in an intentional practice like getting to know a new raw fleec

Detail of Victoria’s raw fleece from Sarah Pope of Oak Knoll Farm, Friday Harbor, Washington

Detail of Victoria’s raw fleece from Sarah Pope of Oak Knoll Farm, Friday Harbor, Washington

When I encounter a new fleece or fiber, the immediate overwhelm of my senses takes me right out wherever my mind was spinning and laser focuses my attention to what is immediately in front of me. 

Even before I see a new fleece, I smell it—animal, lanolin, pasture. And then I open it and spread it out. My hands can tell immediately how much lanolin is on the fibers. Most of the time I can see the shape of the animal. I can see and feel the finer fibers around the neck and shoulders. I can see and feel if the crimp is consistent across the fleece. I will know immediately if there is staining or breaks in the fiber. Vegetal matter stuck in the fleece provides a glimpse into the pastures where the sheep ambled and grazed. A pristine fleece tells me about the care and thoughtfulness of the shepherdess. Finally, I can pick out a lock and ping it next to my ear to listen for that distinct ping of a healthy and strong fiber. 

Raw locks from the back of Victoria’s neck.

Raw locks from the back of Victoria’s neck.

This is a moment of calm before the storm. I am suspended in time, lost in the landscape of this fleece. I look for clues of what kind of year the animal and shepherd have had. Sometimes variations in the crimp can suggest a stressful point during the year. In an ewe, perhaps this happened while she was carrying lambs. When I see perfect crimp, I am amazed by the health of the sheep and the incredible care of the shepherd. 

This is an extremely pleasurable experience. It is a total immersion of the senses. It is immediate. I emerge covered in lanolin, dirt, and fiber. My nostrils are full of a blend of sheep, pasture and dirt. My hands glisten. This is when I am connected to the shepherdess, her year, her flock, her land. This is when I am all-in and fully committed to my purpose in this wool chain.

These first moments are similar to the chaos I feel in the bigger picture of my work for 2019. Competing to-do lists for each project/part of the fleece start to flood my brain. With a fleece, this is where I can draw on the discipline I developed as a conservator. I can step back ask the questions to take the experience to the next level of analysis. What am I seeing, smelling, feeling and why? Is this what I would expect from this breed or cross? Where can I use each part of this fleece in my work? What is surprising? Where do I need to do more research? Who can help me understand more about this fleece? I take a ton of images; save samples; and make notes. 

These are all the ways I can take that initial moment when I sink into a fleece and start to translate it into the work that will be physical manifestations of this connection to animal, human, and land. The fleece sends me into the world with a reminder to move with curiosity, kindness, and generosity.  Personally, this practice helps me to find my literal place in this world and to define my role. It is my hope that this sense and ultimately the process of the work will connect me to others and to the tradition of making, of honoring the land and animals, and the long history of textiles in my family and beyond. 

A handful of Victoria’s clean locks.

A handful of Victoria’s clean locks.