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Camp 2018, Part Four

Sunday at Comics Camp always means one thing: in the morning, newcomers discover that last night’s dinner — sandwiches and such — were just for convenience. Jeste is bringing the tasty at full speed with heaps of sliced fruit, oatmeal, stuff to put in oatmeal, sticky buns, and an enormous hotel pan of migas; breakfast will not lack for tasty eggs and it’s just going to get more impressive as she takes the measure of her helpers.

There’s a split in the first programming block, with each of the two sessions having an upper limit due to materials constraints; on the one hand, you can learn to do accordion binding and build a notebook (Erika Moen does one that’s an absolutely gorgeous tribute to her beetlings), on the other hand, you can learn Ravenstail weaving. Having come to Camp determined to learn to knit (a decision I made last year and am only now acting on), I opt for the weaving.

Lily Hope is a Tlingit weaver, who learned from her mother, who learned in turn from one of a handful of surviving master weavers; there are a dozen or two people in the world that can do what she does, which is to make the warp and weft threads dance and to tease the geometric, always-symmetric designs from wool. She sets up a standing loom that contains the starting portion of a ceremonial shawl (as she describes it, it’s sort of a shoulder throw or shawl, and good thing too or it might never be finished), the result of three months hard work. An accomplished weaver, she tells us, can do about one square inch of design in three hours.

She sets us up with key rings tied with warp bundles and a pair of weft threads strung about them as starters, and two sets of instructions (one written, one visual) before walking us through the basics: tie two threads together, one in front of the warps (always an even number), one behind. Drop the behind weft, thread the front weft behind the next bundle of warps, bring the behind thread in front. Repeat across the warps and tie it as best you can at the right side (Ravenstail weaving is always left-to-right, and the design always rides on the front of the piece only). Repeat with the next pair of wefts; don’t let the warps tangle, don’t let the wefts slip, don’t miscount, don’t tie off too tight or too loose, don’t let the tails get in a snarl.

We move our fingers clumsily, slowly improving as she talks about the differences between Ravenstail and Chilkat weaving (Chilkat is adapted from the aesthetics of formline carvings found in house screens and totems), about the traditions of gifting across clan boundaries, and the meaning in the work. Human figures in the weaving are never shown with five-fingered hands, because it ties the work to a particular person, she says; the intent isn’t to say I was here, but instead to say A person made this, and who is less important than the people that person came from.

That idea isn’t always easy to get across; she’s had commissions from people that love the blankets and robes she produces and insist on the making designs as authentic and traditional as possible. She has to explain that the most authentic work must reside with the clan; to make a piece that’s appropriate for ceremony but that won’t be used in ceremony, that will hang on the wall of a collector in the Lower 48, can’t be done. If they want authentic, they need to talk about donating the piece to a clan that will make use of it; if they want to keep it, she’ll put in elements that are meaningful (representations of her family and her children), but which are not traditional designs. It’s a conversation about what makes your culture special and gives it meaning, and how far that meaning can be transported to other places and people.

She watches as we make our way through work that can be frustrating; I’m pretty good at the right-side knotting, but my warps keep tangling. My mind drifts to ideas of how I could add mechanical aids to the process (just a small bit of weight at the bottom of the warp would be helpful; I’ve seen it done by weavers of everything from Bruges lace to Shinto shrine decorations). I also consider that getting frustrated at a difficult task that takes a lifetime to master after about 20 minutes is also not a good look¹; she takes that time to tell us that we’re all doing very well and we’re really focusing on task much better than her usual students. Then again, her usual students are fourth graders, so….

The 90 minutes goes by and I’ve got about ten rows done; I’m keeping my elbows in close like I’m told, and I’ll spend much of the rest of the day completing this one small set of black and white chevrons with yellow accents. It’s still in my lap as we head back to the main lodge for the best-attended session of Camp. Lily’s husband, Ishmael, is going to talk about how indigenous stories and traditions can be brought into modern contexts without losing their meaning.

Ishmael is a poet, storyteller, writer, videogame producer, and steeped in the tales of his Tlingit and Inupiaq heritage. He talks about how a culture can’t be window dressing in a story, a game, a movie — the concerns of the people that live it must be given primacy if there’s to be the authenticity that the outsiders (who asked for input, after all) claim to want. He tells the story of a young boy taken by the Salmon People to learn the value of the food that he turned his nose up at; his storyteller rhythms are hypnotic, lulling; his voice conjures images in your mind. At night around a fire, the shadows would dance into shapes to illustrate his words.

There’s a lilting musicality to his story that fades as he speaks prose again; I’ve not woven a thread in an hour, but the design appears to be more recognizable than it was before.

Georgina Hayns teaches soft sculpture — two pieces of fabric, a design drawn in mirror image on them, representing the front and back of character, which will be stitched together and stuffed into a flat pillow shape. Whales, horses, blobfish, T-Rex (one guess who made that one), and a Scott C nightmare rabbit are among the designs that are painted, then stitched up and eventually stuffed. I watch, but have no character that I want to create; I continue weaving as the pillowcritters take shape (most of which will be finished over the next day; the paints need to dry, after all).

After lunch, Vera Brosgol teaches fabric arts for the homicidal: needle felting! You take a pile of wool over here, mush it up into a rough shape over there, and then you stab stab stab stab stab with a special barbed needle until it compresses and sculpts into the desired shape. More stabs allow you to connect different bundles of wool together. If you’re smart, Brosgol says, you stab not against a pile of wool held in your hand, but one that’s resting on a dense sponge; she asks casually if we’re up to date on our tetanus shots, but does not ask if we’re smart. In the end, only two people stab themselves and only one draws blood, so yay.

The Stabatorium is filled with aggression release as most of us make mushrooms (a relatively simple beginner project); Ryan North makes a small head that’s meant to be David Malki ! and Nikki Rice Malki’s year-old son. Jeremy Spake makes a little guy that looks remarkably like the old Henson coffee advertising Muppets, Wilkins and/or Wontkins. I decide that a pile of red wool will make a nice Amanita, the deadly mushroom genus responsible for more deaths than any other; I mention that Amanita‘s mycotoxin works by melting your liver, which would ordinarily be responsible for removing the toxin from your system. Sneaky buggers, them shrooms.

I do my turn in the kitchen on dinner prep — many veg are cut, salmon in a green curry sauce is prepped with a multi-veg slaw; it’s terrific, and I see how improvisational Jeste’s cooking is; she knew the salmon was going to be the centerpiece, but the rest of the meal came together over the 90 minutes or so that we were at work. She asks Georgia Patton, my fellow kitchen helper, if she’s ever worked in a professional kitchen before. You’re competent, Jeste says; this is high praise from any chef.

After dinner, the Pacific Order of Onomatopoeia Professionals reconvenes for the first time since last year’s First Annual Regional Terminology Summit. When POoOP president Tony Cliff announced that this year’s meeting would in fact take place, I spent the best part of a week trying to come up with an appropriate backronym for the event. Then Raina Telgemeier casually dropped the perfect label: Number Two.

I may have come up with a winner with the sound of people making out with tongues: le kiss. The results will be compiled by the estimable Mr Cliff soon enough, and as with last year’s FARTS, will be binding. Cliff, by the way, brought two copies of his soon-to-be-released third Delilah Dirk book, and there was not a single time that either of them was not being read. He’s pretty great at creating comics, and has lots of impressive onomatopoeia inside (even more impressive, I just spelled that word correctly on the first attempt for the first time in my life).

My weaving is done, some five hours of work in total; I’m surprised at my dive into the work of fabric, then surprised that I’m surprised. Over the past couple of years I’ve realized that the very male realms of engineering (in general) and making (in particular) greatly undervalue the textile arts. The draping of a garment from a 2D pattern to a 3D person, with a soft medium that changes with temperature, humidity, wind, and gravity, that behaves differently depending on how it’s cut and constructed — fashion is the most hardcore materials engineering discipline there is.

In retrospect, the tactile crafting going on this first day (Jason Alderman decided to attempt a full stuffed animal rather than a 2D+ pillow form; I saw him sketching out gussets), a buffer from the real world before we get into the deeper feelings in another day. Andy Runton and I catch up on years of not seeing each other; he’s been too absent from the new releases list for too long and his return will be welcomed by many, not the least me (my youngest nieces and nephews all got the Owly books; now the oldest are having their own kids, and I’m just saying that a new edition of them would be well received over the next couple of years, publishing industry).

Yarn, thread, needles, wool, books, stories — the tangible (and the made tangible by force of words) have stitched us together on this first full day.

_______________

Pictures:

    Lily Hope is one of maybe ten, maybe fifteen people in the world that can do what you see here, and it took her three months. The little baby socks keeping the bundles of warp threads organized are a nice touch. The pattern that we’re weaving can be seen in the pixelized design maps; I really cannot overstate the degree of concentration that was required to make progress.

    George’s horse looked great! Everybody else was a day or so away from their ravens, whales, T-Rexes, blobfish, and scary-ass rabbits. Felting, by contrast, is simple; just stab stab stab until things come together and then you have a pile of mushrooms and also Young Master Malki !.

    Balloting for new official terms would continue for approximately 30 hours; you can’t quite read what the candidates are, but Cliff should be releasing the results in a week or two, and we’ll share them then. In the meantime, here’s last year’s again.

    _______________
    ¹ Then again, she casually mentions that if any of us are engineers who can design her a loom that can collapse in a connected fashion instead of having to be completely disassembled when she wants to move it to a different place, she’d be grateful. Tradition and technical advancements can be compatible.

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    Textile science is hard core. I worked with another guy who has a PhD in physics, and he spent several years doing textile analysis. It’s much more complicated that most industrial materials. You need tensors to model the material properties of fabric. Even a simple thing like elasticity, which is fully described by a single number for a metal, needs a tensor matrix to describe for a fabric, because when you stretch a fabric it changes dimension along multiple axes in arbitrary ways.

    Tensor math gives me throbbing headaches.

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