Every year in mid-October I travel to the fair grounds nestled in the heart of Rhinebeck, New York for the New York State Sheep and Wool Festival. Noni has a big booth there. There are women who come every year to purchase a project. The next year they come back with the finished bag on their shoulder or wearing a beautiful coat and buy the next next project. I love this. Watching those beautiful bags and coats come back, I feel some measure of pride in being a small part of that project, that growth.
This year (meaning, actually, this past Rhinebeck of 2013), a pair of women I remember from the previous year walked into the booth together and found me. They live, I think, in the City and are dear friends. They had both purchased kits for the Ridge Bag.
They had done the knitting together, felted together in the same washer, the in same load even, as I think they told me. I will name these woman Clotilde and Veronique.
Clotilde’s bag was nearly done —it had lovely crisp shaping at the bottom, shiny nickel bag feet, the zipper sewn in, the handles in place with 6 evenly- spaced rivets. All that was left to be done was the turnlock, about which Clotilde asked advice (and about which I am currently working on a Noni Q&A blog, so stay tuned and check back on Friday). The bag looked, to my eye, maybe better than the original I made myself which hung, at that very moment, on a wreath hook above us.
Veronique’s bag was not finished and had been bunched up in a tote, brought to show me its imperfections. At first, I thought the subtle creases were simply due to being folded while still damp into that same tote. And, truly, this may be partly the case. Even in its rumpled state, the bag was lovely to me, and not with the rose-colored glass eyes of someone who sees only perfection where it does not lie. I saw all of its faults but also what it would, or could, become. I’ve seen a lot of lovely and not so lovely bags. This one was pretty darn terrific.
One of the things I like about the Ridge is how the rib pattern, when felted, gives the bag defined vertical stripes.
Veronique held the bag toward me for me to see. I took it all in, and, without a bit of dissembling said, “It looks great!” I was thinking of the work she would do, how she would thoroughly soak the bag in a sink full of hot water, how she would press out the water so that it was simply damp and pliable, how she would cut the stiffener for the bottom and sew it in, tacking directly into the overly-felted places, if there were any, and also into any less-felted place so as to even the surface and make it almost impossible to see such inconsistencies and also almost impossible to feel them. She would put in the six bag feet, matching up the prongs of the bag feet with both the holes she had punched on the stiffener inside as well as the lines of purled stitches now striping the bottom. She would lay down the second layer of stiffener carefully covered with a bright fabric surprise or a subtle grey lining to match the bag itself. She would rivet on the handle, sew in the black zipper, stitch the metal label on the back. She would rivet on the turnlock flap with the six or eight shiny nickel rivets to match the six or eight rivets holding each handle ring.
With every step, the bag would look better and better due to the dampness and her work, the attention of her fingers pressing the fabric smoother and smoother.
But Veronique has not finished as many bags as I have, I think, and she has not seen the imperfections that have come out of the washing machine in my kitchen, imperfections I have had no luxury to nurse: Photo shoot in two days, no time to knit and felt again. Had to go with this bag, as it was, had to fix it. Had to say yes.
“No, look at it,” I think she said, and held it out to me again, insistent. She pointed to all the places she felt were problems. She compared her bag to Clotilde’s. Hers was not as good.
“Why did this happen?,” she wanted to know, despair and disbelief in her voice. “We wanted to show you our beautiful bags. We had it all planned.” I could see the image of what was supposed to have happened in contrast to the little triangle we now formed. Her question was so big and there are so many possible answers. Maybe there was an inconsistency in the knitted stitches that etched themselves into the felting. But maybe not. Maybe the bag got creased up in the washer and couldn’t undo itself. Maybe the lingerie bag was too small or too large and tied itself in a knot, maybe the color of Veronique’s bag made it felt differently than Clotilde’s bag. But knowing why something happens doesn’t fix it and these answers seemed only to make Veronique feel worse. I had no magic. I only had solutions that involved working with what was.
I told her that the imperfections she was seeing in the depth and the texture of the purled stripes mattered more to her than to me. I should have thought to get down the Ridge bag I made myself, the one that hung not 2 feet above our heads, and scour it for such disparities. I am sure we would have found it. But in many ways, this is not the point . . . and it would not have consoled her.
Felt is not perfect. And if it appears to be, it is fooling you. Even leather is not perfect, decorated as it almost always is with notices about it being a natural product and therefore full of inconsistencies. A leather bag wears the imperfections that the creature who before bore that skin sustained during its life: the surface bears evidence of a cow’s movements next to a barbed wire fence, the calluses of sleep and use, a wound, the bite of a horse fly, the habits of the body in the world.
So, too, the felt in a bag bears witness to our own moods sometimes: one day my knitting might be tighter than the next, it has lain forgotten in a bag for months, nay a year. The very fiber itself is made from the fleeces of many animals, and some of those fleeces are incredible, soft and strong and supple, while others are not. There is great diversity in a single strand of yarn. And the felt bears witness to all that has brought it into being; the grain a Merino sheep eats, the tenderness with which it is raised, the age of the animal, the weather it endures, the soil under its feet, the skill of the shearer, the the twist in the milling, the way the steam sets the twist, the hands of the knitter, the swish of the washer, the heat of the wash, the alkalinity of water, the particular tumble it receives, the attention it is paid during all of that, the violence of the spin that dries it to dampness.
Even my bags come out of the washer looking like lumps. Sometimes I pull them into a shape and smoothness that seems impossible given all the variables. And sometimes they come out with problems I did not expect and I must find a way to fix, or at least disguise. Veronique wanted me to tell her what to do, how to fix it. And I tried.
I held Veronique’s bag in my hands as though it was, as I felt it was, half mine, in all its trouble, and I said, “If these places bother you so much—and they bother you more than they bother me—then you can distract the eye. Picture this—this is a lovely dark grey bag. What if you make even just one, though I think 2 would be better, but just one big Oriental Poppy out of shades of grey. Long grey stems. Let the stems circle around here,” as I gestured across the face of the bag and drew the stems over the places that bothered Veronique the most. “The face of one flower is here, the other flower here, their stems twining together, a scattering of pewter seed beads here to catch the light, pull the eye.”
I tell you, I could see it myself and it was beautiful.
But if Veronique could see what I saw, her own picture of her hopeless bag pushed the one I had just painted away. She protested that working too much over a bag, like a piece or jewelry, just makes it a “hot mess.” That’s a term I despise for its ugliness, but she’s right, of course: sometimes, in our efforts to fix something, we end up piling things on top to the point that it is overdone, overly freighted with good intentions and desperation. That is, I agree, not usually beautiful. But careful, restrained, thoughtful attention, a good plan, and some hard work are different.
Veronique was so unhappy, so disgusted. I could feel it and it felt terrible and I have been her before but I have also been her and gotten myself out of that rut of thinking. All that money in the yarn. All that time. Photo shoot tomorrow. No choice. Say Yes. Make it work. Get to work.
Her sadness made me so sad because it seemed, really, so much bigger than the bag. Of course it was, wasn’t it? We make the bag or something else into a bigger true statement about ourselves. But the statements we make to ourselves are not always true, even if we believe them and think they are. I wanted to spend the day with her. If she had been in one of my workshops, I like to think, she would have trusted me, and then, in trusting me she would have started to trust herself. We would have tried at least three different ways of dressing her bag and they would have been so different, but each one wonderful. In fact, (and I told her this) I am confident that once we were done, her bag would have been much more beautiful than it would otherwise have been. Better than Clotilde’s, or my, “perfect bag.”
But I didn’t have a day or two days. I had minutes. And I am afraid, in the end, it may not have been enough. I asked her to stop saying such ugly things about her bag. I held her shoulders in my hands and looked into her eyes and asked her to stop, breath deep, feel my heart. Open her heart to what I felt in my heart about her bag, with all the problems she saw there.
“Feel my heart,” I said again.
And I think she did. She tried to reset her thinking.
Maybe she closed her eyes, took a breath, stopped the ugly talk for a moment.
She said quietly, “Ok, I see what you are saying.” She squared her shoulders, I think. She turned toward the bags on display and gestured to one, said she liked the quilted look of the cabochon rivets on the front of my Dinner Party Backstage bag.
I liked her choice and said, “Those bright cabochons arranged the same way on the Ridge would look great. Use the vertical stripes to make the pattern nice and even. Decorate just the front or the whole thing.”
She could start with the front and then order more rivets later if she wanted to. They would go well with the brightness of the turnlock as a focal at the center of the bag. I could see it. It would look smart and it would be a faster than knitting two Poppies, hand-beading. Very different finished bags, but both terrific.
We picked out the rivets. I gave her a big hug. She looked like she felt better. I said, “Send me a picture.” She smiled and she and Clotilde left.
Hours later, Clotilde came back without Veronique, the rivets and the receipt in her hand. “She is not convinced,” is what Clotilde said if I remember right. We refunded the money and put the rivets back on the wall. I felt sad all over again.
I still feel sad, because I can still see that amazing bag Veronique could have made (may still!, I hold out hope), and I am convinced to my very core that it would have been better than the bag I originally designed and that hangs even now from the wreath stand in my studio. If Veronique came to the studio and spent the day with me, I still think she can do it . . . I mean, she knows how to do this. Her hands know. Her brain knows. And I know she can do it without me, too. I hope she might read this and be convinced, at least enough to say yes and get to work.
Because, you see, it is at just this moment of despair, when things don’t turn out the way we wanted or predicted, that most challenges us and requires a creative approach. I agree with Phil Hansen, an artist who had to overcome the way nerve damage in his hands made it impossible for him (a pointillist in the beginning) to make a simple dot or draw a straight line anymore. His Ted talk called Embrace The Shake holds such stark truths and can inspire us all. But we can’t always move without help, without someone else asking a question or making just the smallest (and biggest) suggestion: What if you embrace the shake? What if you put a ruffle here? What if you tuck in the sides? What if you cover that up? What if dots become squiggles? What if. . . What. . . if . . . ?
I taught a workshop where a knitter I will name Clara only realized after her bag had felted that the handle across her tiny market bag was not centered in the middle as it was supposed to be but went from one corner of the bag to the other across the top at an angle. Her face was a cavern of misery at the beginning of the class. And if she had believed that it could not be saved, then she would likely have left the class early. Where she saw failure I saw possibilities. . . mainly, believe me, because I have made so many mistakes. I took her bag in my hands and said, “But what if you just say yes to the handle and do this?” I nipped in the sides so the bag had more structure and allowed the handle to fold in the middle. I held up a pretty snap that shows on the outside and put it in the middle of the front. There was a pleased and unanimous “Ahh!” from the class. She tilted her head to one side and smiled a little. Maybe she said, “That looks nice.”
Someone from the class donated bright red Hydrangea flowers to her little sage-green bag. Clara found 4 shiny crimson bag feet and put them on the bottom. She tried the Amazing Magnetic snap, liked it, and covered up the ugly back on the outside with one of those sweet little red flowers. She lined the stiffener piece at the bottom with bright red fabric. She blocked the handle into a lovely arc across the top of the bag and tacked it there with invisible stitches.
What she did was a collaboration of ideas that I and other members of the class offered and she generated herself, a beautiful synergy. That is what creativity is: it is work, hard work, in a community of other people engaged in a creative process.
And creativity is, as Phil Hansen suggests, working with a limited scope of materials and exploring an idea within those limitations. It is saying yes to adversity and absence and restriction and making something out of it. Clara could have whispered, in the light of all of our suggestions, “No, it’s ruined.” Other students in other workshops have done so, turned away, left early. Instead, Clara said yes. And, I tell you, her bag was so pretty. We all loved it. I secretly wished it was my own bag and maybe everyone else did, too. And she, rightly, loved it most of all, saying, as she left, that she had it in mind to go shopping and get a new red dress to match. She was going to the opera soon, or a special wedding anniversary dinner—something wonderful, I remember—and she was going to carry her new bag and wear her new red dress. She was radiant and beautiful with her accomplishment.
When we follow a pattern, it is not always easy, but there is, nevertheless, a certain amount of safety in doing so. So when the pattern fails us there is greater risk, but also opportunity. Phil Hansen found in himself a creativity that would not have been spurred into being had he not damaged his own body in the execution of that same art.
So, what if next time something goes awry, instead of saying “It’s over, it’s ruined,” (or go ahead, say it and get it over with. I mean, even Phil said to himself that his life as an artist was over . . . for three or so years he said it!) say instead, “What if . . . ?”
What if . . . ?
And then get to work.