Wednesday, April 12, 2023

R & D, or, Why I just crocheted an alligator

Warning: long post ahead wherein I talk to myself and invite you to follow me down multiple rabbit holes. 

The muse sometimes strays deep into the weeds, and you’re helpless not to follow. 

For a while now, I’ve been working toward making my tapestries more like objects in themselves, less like pictures. I’ve used collage not just as a design strategy for the imagery, but as a construction and materials approach to my weavings.

WUI 7: gas/oil (detail). Linen, plastic survey marking whiskers, blue grama grass.  17 x 12 x 1.5" framed, including fringe.  2023


Peachtree Boogie Woogie, 20" x 16" mounted.  Cotton, wool, linen, metallic; woven in three collaged pieces.  2021

The idea is for the materials, form and construction of the piece to carry as much or more meaning than the image. 

So.  I’ve been musing a lot on the state of our built and natural environment here in the high desert, recalling that a year ago, what became the largest wildfire in New Mexico history started—the result of a controlled burn that quickly got out of control under extremely windy conditions, thought to be a by-product of climate change.  For six weeks crews battled the fire and on some days we could see the smoke plumes from our driveway. I packed a “go bag” and made an evacuation plan for the first time in my life. 

Some of you may be thinking, Welcome to my world. This is not news to many people.  I have been learning that like millions of Americans in over 70,000 communities, I live in what firefighters call the Wildland-Urban Interface, the WUI, where human habitation butts up against forests, grasslands, and other wildfire prone areas. It’s not just a western phenomenon: there was a devastating wildfire a few years ago in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

Back to art. So I was playing in my sketchbook recently, sketching shapes that looked like boats run aground on rocks, thinking of the old metaphor of the ship or boat  as a microcosm of the earth and all its people, when it struck me:  instead of making a picture of a boat

. . . why not make an actual boat?  I reflected on how my recent attempt to weave a "tapestry on a box" with wire warps and plastic wefts (possibly a bad choice for a first attempt) was frustrating.  

Wire warp, plastic dry-cleaning bag wefts, golden rain tree pods.  About 3" square

I made some paper-and-tape models of boats and canoes.

I wove a small pulled warp piece in a linen open weave, inserting for good measure some plastic wire survey markers and some grass. It pulled into a shape that looks more like a pod than a boat.  Plus, all those warp ends were a pain to deal with and I ended up just cutting them short.  Hmmm.

And so I was off, down multiple rabbit holes, looking at the work of Ruth Asawa and Norma Minkowitz, taking an online class in weaving with wire with Christine Miller, trying to figure out how to use the skills I have, weaving and possibly crochet, to make a 3D form that can stand up.  I got Kathe Todd-Hooker's book Shaped Tapestry off the shelf and studied how to make a pin loom for shaped weaving

Woven canoe in progress on pin loom.  28 gauge wire warp, plastic weft; 10 epi, 7.75" x 5.5".  The twining in the middle was to order and space the warps and eventually came out.  Wire warps are unruly!

Completed canoe.  7" L x 2" H x 2.75" W

My favorite bit is the tiny wire mesh hole on the top back side.  My least favorite bit was figuring out how to sew the edges together.  Plastic strips do not like to make construction stitches.  Sewing thread is very thin and slips out.  Further research needed!

I wove the strips below with a 28-gauge wire warp and various fiber and plastic wefts on the Mirrix Saffron.  (Wire is the perfect warp for the Saffron by the way:  no shredding!)

These strips are definitely shape-able and can even stand up!!

Looking at Ruth Asawa's work led me down the rabbit hole of wire crochet.  Her work, it turns out, is often erroneously described as crochet when in fact it's more of a looping technique.  A whole 'nother story.  Anyway, I made this little experiment and liked it but it feels like someone else's technique, not mine.  


Meanwhile I dove into the wacky world of amirugumi to learn how to use crochet to construct 3D forms.  Here's the experiment that makes me smile every time I see it:  

We call him the Elongator because I may have forgotten, I mean skipped, checking gauge so he turned out longer than expected.  

Next: a wool lobster!

I experimented with wire crochet as a way of making armatures and forms, but crocheting wire is incredibly frustrating for me.  Perhaps the irregularities would disappear with practice; perhaps not.  Where do you draw the line between appealingly casual and spontaneous. . .  and just plain sloppy?  I do have this sort of cool swatch collection though.

All samples use 28 gauge wire.  Clockwise from top left: single crochet (hook D), half-double crochet (hook C), double crochet (hook C).
So. . . what's next?  The obvious thing I haven't explored much yet is basket-making.  Basket-makers have been using weaving techniques to make vessels for millenia, duh!  I'd love to figure out how to use my tapestry skills to weave interesting surfaces in 3D forms.  That's the goal.  Stay tuned! 

Have you been doing any R & D lately?  Tell us!