New Age Looping & A Whole New Mind

Last week I had the pleasure of doing a workshop and lecture on New Age Looping for the North Shore Weavers Guild in Evanston, Illinois. Before I do this lecture, I always spread out the contents of my Looping Trunk Show — a rolling carry-on bag filled with some of the more portable pieces I’ve made over the years. I also put out my bead looping cell phone case, my looped MP3 player pouch, and a few other looped pieces I use daily. Then I fill my travel mug with tea to sip as I speak to the group.

Invariably, after a program I expect to hear two questions: “How long did it take you to make all that?” and “May I look at your mug?” It’s a simple thermal mug I bought because it has a lid I can close completely (I’m a recovering spiller). The freeform looping sheath I made to go around it gives me something textured to hold onto and something pretty to look at.

After the lecture, I drove home sipping tea from that same mug, thinking about the lovely people I had met and replaying snippets of conversations in my mind. One guild member is an archaeologist, and I hope to continue our brief discussion of one of my favorite books, Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years by Elizabeth Wayland Barber.

Somewhere north of Milwaukee, I was struck by an unexpected parallel between Women’s Work and a book I read recently. In A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink describes a new age of a different kind – one that prizes aptitudes he calls “high concept” and “high touch.”

“High concept involves the capacity to detect patterns and opportunities, to create artistic and emotional beauty, to craft a satisfying narrative, and to combine seemingly unrelated ideas into something new. High touch involves the ability to empathize with others, to understand the subtleties of human interaction, to find joy in one’s self and to elicit it in other, and to stretch beyond the quotidian in pursuit of purpose and meaning.”

For 20,000 years, stitchers and weavers have done just that. If you’re going to make something that people will see or touch or use, it might as well be beautiful. As Barber notes, for most of human history time wasn’t perceived as a commodity. Something takes how long it takes.

I’ll drink to that.

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Puppy Love & Dog-Eared Pages

Like a lot of fiber artists, I learned much of what I know because I found it in print. I still have and use that little orange embroidery booklet from Coats & Clark. A circa 1959 copy of Good Housekeeping’s Complete Book of Needlecraft by Vera P. Guild, which I pinched from my mom years ago, was my introduction to netting with shuttle and gauge, and much more. In high school, I bought Mara Cary’s Basic Baskets and some reed and taught myself to weave. My idea of a good time is scouring a used bookstore for titles that may be long out of print but still offer insight and ideas.

In the studio today, I needed someone else’s opinion (winnowing or threshing?), and thought maybe I’d find it in Ed Rossbach’s The Nature of Basketry. I got sidetracked in his chapter on Temporary Baskets. That’s where, years ago, I dog-eared the page corner and underlined this:

“The perishable thing which survives speaks most potently of time, of all time rather than the moment of its existence.”

Later today, I read the first issue of a new online magazine, Needle. Fabulous images, lovely articles. Don’t miss Jayne Coleman’s “The Wisdom of Grannies”. My first thought was, how do I dog-ear this page? I want to stumble upon this again when I’m looking for something else.

It’s hard not to think of magazines as perishable, and online magazines even more so. But this one created a beautiful memory for me. I haven’t figured out how to store it with the back issues of Piecework in my basement, but I’ll keep you posted.

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Another Collaboration

When Joan Molloy Slack and I first met, it didn’t take long to discover that we’re both fascinated by the work of our ancient ancestors. For a recent show at Nicolet College, we honored that work with a collaboration that combined her pottery and my netting.

Most objects the ancients used in everyday life were made of perishable fibers that disintegrated long ago. But archaeologists have found 28,000-year-old clay fragments marked with the impression of netting. The skilled execution of the knots shown in those impressions suggests that netting wasn’t new to them, that people had been using the technique for some time to catch fish, snare game, and carry unwieldy objects. People still sometimes decorate pottery with the imprint of netting.

The ancestors who once pressed a net into wet clay left us an even greater legacy than physical evidence of ancient material culture. They left us a tradition of collaboration. In Niche, Joan and I celebrate the women who went before us and those will come after us, working together to make even everyday objects more beautiful.

If you have a chance, go here to read a 1998 article from Discover magazine by Heather Pringle called New Women of the Ice Age. Archaeologist Olga Soffer’s comments about net hunting are offer a wonderful example of the power of working together.

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What’s In A Name Tote Bag

This week I was scrambling to get stuff done before Thanksgiving and almost forgot: I needed two small gifts. It’ll take me longer to write a tutorial than it did to make them, so I’ll save that for another day. For now, here are the high points:

Look up the meaning of the recipient’s name, use a search engine to find that meaning translated into Chinese characters, combine the name elements into one graphic, print the graphic on translucent inkjet heat transfer paper, use an iron to transfer it to a pre-made tote bag, and wrap in recycled fabric and ribbon. Done.

I’ll just give you a heads up on a product you might want to have on hand for last-minute gifts like these. I’m devoted to Dharma Trading Company’s inkjet transfer papers. I use Dharma’s Professional paper #IJP8 on woven fabrics like the What’s In A Name tote.

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Standing Stones Collaboration

Joan Molloy Slack is a felter and a potter I got to know recently when we collaborated on two pieces for a show. One of the pieces Joan sent me a piece was from her series of Standing Stones. I loved the energy of the shape, and the subtle mystery of the markings on it.

For my part of the collaboration, I used an ancient fiber technique called looping to create a sheath that embraces the form. You can read more about looping here.

Some of the markings on the pottery are covered by the looping, but they’re still there, echoed in the shapes of the stitched motifs. Like mysterious artifacts of the ancient world, the power of the piece is not diminished because it’s no longer seen exactly the way it was by its creator.

Perhaps someday another artist will pick up this piece and add another layer of markings, another chapter to the story of this standing stone. And perhaps after many, many somedays, a scholar will study it layer by layer, trying to determine what it was we meant to say.

I hope so. I left a door open for them.

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A Different Kind Of Snippet

Bear with me here, friends. I’ve seen the T-shirt “Code Is Beautiful” but I’m a fiber artist: I’m used to snippets that involve scissors and fabric. Technorati wants me to include a snippet here to verify that I am, in fact, the author of this blog. I may also embroider it on a pillow.


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Fiber Friday Fun

River Run Center for the Arts in McNaughton, Wisconsin, is now hosting a once-a-month open studio session, and last week I got to be part of the fun. It was great to spend time with my friend Rhonda and see some of her recent work, and lovely to meet some new people. Most were needle felting, and there was some good-natured 12-needle embellisher envy going on. My thanks to owner Joan Molloy Slack for the invitation!

In rural areas like where I live and where River Run is located, it takes a bit of effort to create a community. It’s hard to pop into a shop or coffee house on the spur of the moment to join a group. Online groups are fabulous, but it’s very nice to get to know people who share your interests AND your time zone.

So I’d love to hear: What fiber communities do you belong to, and how do you create them? Hit the Comment button and share your thoughts, or email donnastitches[at]

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Two Red Threads In An Unfinished Sampler

I’m the current custodian of an unfinished cross-stitch sampler. It’s faded and hard to photograph through conservation glass, so let me tell you its story.

Back in the early 1970’s, my great-aunt Ruth Matthews Wiggins gave the sampler to my parents. In 2005, they passed it on to me. The information passed along with this linen sampler says it was made about 1815. The maker’s name was Elizabeth Hodge.

Elizabeth used two different green threads, one of which is still pretty vivid, to work an outer border and designs that separate the major sections of the sampler.

The first two sections — an alphabet (upper and lower case letters) and a poem – are worked in one shade of red. Part of the third section — her name and dates – is worked in a different red. The last section says, ”Elizabeth Hodge was born September the 4 186 (we would read that 1806) and was married July the 6 1824.”

She would have been 9 years old when she began the sampler, and 18 when she married.

The sampler is about 18 inches square, and there’s a good 5 inches of blank space between the last stitched date and the bottom border. Maybe she meant to sample different embroidery stitches there, or fill the space with some design or motif. Maybe she intended to fill in the birth dates of her children, then had children and never found the time.

I know a lot of people who feel weighted down by projects begun but not completed. Maybe Elizabeth felt the same way. I don’t know. But I do know this: Even if my great-great-great grandmother had bought this sampler at a carriage-house sale, I would still treasure it. Even though it appears to be unfinished, to me it represents the process of learning.

Learning is a lifelong adventure. It doesn’t always fit exactly into the framework we expect, or the timetable we would choose. There’s something to be learned from everything we make, and it’s not all related to design or technique. It may be about patience or perseverance or learning to accept our own imperfections. It may be about celebrating achievement instead of feeling guilty when our reach exceeds our grasp.

I know you know that, but sometimes we forget.

Take a look around in the corner of the world where you make stuff. If you find things you’ve been lamenting because they never got finished, ask yourself:

— Is there more I want to learn from this?
— Can I learn more from it, or is the lesson complete?
— Is this a project or a sampler?
— Can I be happy with it just the way it is — at least for now?

If it’s weighing you down, give yourself permission to pass it along: Sell it at a garage sale, take it to a thrift shop, offer it to a friend. Or reclassify it in your mind from Unfinished Project to Material or Supplies, and use it for sampling some new product or technique. But please, think twice before you send it to a landfill.

I’m grateful to all the people between Elizabeth and me who made the choice to save this faded, unfinished artifact.

Two red threads represent a passion for learning that never fades. Now, that’s a legacy.

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Two Red Threads – 194 Years In The Making

Haven’t we met before? I’m Donna Kallner. I teach fiber art workshops around the country (and take workshops, too, when I can).

At these events, wonderful, interesting people begin fascinating conversations. And I’m the one who cuts in and breaks the thread of thought. When I’d like to say, “Tell us more!” I have to say, “Excuse me,” so I can do another demo, answer a question, or check on progress around the room.

This blog is a place to continue the conversation, untangle ideas, share stories, and reflect on what we learn by making fiber art. Thanks for coming by and joining in.

I’ll be posting a couple times a week (more some weeks, less others) about topics like looping, stitching, surface design, image transfer, digital fabric, mixed media textiles and vessels, stuff I’m sampling, books and blogs. I’ll post occasional tutorials, creativity exercises, prompts and challenges. And I’ll be asking readers to share work made in response to classes and challenges.

You can make sure you know what’s happening at Two Red Threads by subscribing, using the button in the sidebar.

So why is it called Two Red Threads? Stay tuned, and next time I’ll tell you about an unfinished project that should make you feel better about your own UFOs.

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