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Commentary: The fiber of our being

Gloria Delany-Barmann
Rich Egger
Gloria Delany-Barmann

Our ewes are lambing this week, and I’ve been thinking about this new cycle of life, fiber, and potential new garments to come. Author Peggy Orstein in her book Unraveling wrote “Making something from nothing is the quintessential magic of women, whether turning fiber to thread or flour to bread or engaging in the ultimate creative act: conjuring new humans from nowhere at all.”

As a knitter, spinner, and shepherdess of a small flock of sheep, the longer I live and learn about fiber, its history, and economic and societal impact, the more grounded I feel by this “so called” “craft.” In fact, “The handmade thread, metaphorical or physical, ties together our human history, not neatly but with complicated and important entanglements”

Humans have been engaged in the production of fiber for thousands of years. Early hand spindles found at archeological sites date back to 6000 BC and are not very different from the drop spindles that many spinners use today. Orstein reminds us that at one time all thread for households and industry were produced this way. Women from all walks of life spun constantly. And one would have to if you think about the amount of thread necessary for clothing, bedding, and other necessary products like sails for ships. Journalist Kassia St. Clair noted that even a woman who spins 32 to 55 yards of thread an hour would require about two and a half years to produce enough thread for a sail on your average Viking ship.

Just as archeologists, linguists, and historians can document the long history of fiber and how it is woven into our legends, metaphors, and daily lives, current clothing and fiber research shows us that most of us don’t wear natural fibers anymore. That may partially be due to the high cost of organic and natural fiber clothing.

However, it doesn’t matter if it’s cheap clothing or your luxury yoga pants, over 60% of the garments worn on this planet today are now either partly or entirely made up petroleum-derived synthetics-polyester, viscose, nylon, rayon, Dacron, acetate, Lycra, spandex, Gore-tex- and all those other fancy words that just mean plastic. The environmental impact of this fact is disturbing and has deep ramifications for the entire planet (but it’s not the thread I am going to follow for this commentary).

Our garments can also say something about who we are and where we are from. This was definitely the case in the village of Santa Clara La Laguna where my husband and I had the privilege of serving as Peace Corps Volunteers in the highlands of Guatemala in the early 1990s. Walking through our village, one could often hear the sounds of weavers hard at work on their footlooms making the fabric for a woman’s traditional skirt (corte) which, incidentally, required at least 6 yards of material. Likewise, it was not uncommon to see a woman with a backstrap loom kneeling on the ground creating beautiful panels for a huipil (a woman’s blouse) or a piece of fabric for a special occasion.

Each town or region typically has its own style and design influenced by the nature of the surrounding area. For example, where we lived near Lake Atitlán, a lot of the traditional traje is woven in deep blue tones, reflecting the lake. There are birds, corn, serpents, and symbols reminiscent of honeycomb woven into the huipiles. Women in our area who still wore traditional clothing, otherwise known as traje, wore dark blue skirts (or cortes) complimented by a large woven belt (or fajas) and hand woven huipil (or blouse). This clothing can take months to weave, as most women have many other tasks they must attend to. It’s also more expensive than the cheap piles of used (and mostly synthetic) clothing that is imported by the ton into Guatemala every year.

A lot can be deciphered from the clothing beyond just regionalisms. A person’s social class, religious affiliation, and artistic talent (among other things), are also on display. During the Guatemalan Civil war (1960-1996) the differences were used by soldiers to identify and target indigenous people from various regions of the country. Despite risks such as these, many Guatemalans still proudly weave and wear traje. The vibrant colors, designs, and the high quality of traditional clothing, gives one a great sense of place, and not to mention, cultural pride.

Whatever your reasons for producing fiber or handmade garments, my guess is that you might sometimes take a project with you as you go about your day. Maybe you are just trying to make progress on that gift you are making or perhaps it just helps you refocus throughout the day. A recent New York Times article posed the question of the etiquette of knitting during meetings. The Times piece explains that cognitively, knitting helps sharpen our awareness and is quite different than scrolling through social media feeds or playing a game on your phone while in meetings. Indeed, it turns out that it engages the prefrontal cortex and helps us to stay present.

So, what are you waiting for? Grab some needles and a skein of yarn from your local yarn shop and see what happens. It might just be something magical.

Gloria Delany-Barmann is a Professor of Bilingual and ESL (English as a Second Language) Education at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio.

Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.