Seasonal Fibre Guild: marking a decade into my discovery of local

2019 marks the year I turn 50, and to acknowledge that I decided to give myself what I really want- time in EartHand’s two managed gardens with plants between my fingers and a group of colleagues that I could discover plants alongside.

I am keen to push collective awareness of the spinning, basketry and rope-making bounty underfoot. Many of these are plants at my feet that I have often been curious about while others are planted and tended fibre crops to which I already have a strong relationship of knowing.

For several years I have been harvesting common milkweed stalks in the fall trying to understand how to best release the inner silky threads from the outer bark layer- I have come a long way intuitively in my discovery just based on observation for the harvest- and now I need to figure out the processing from stripped stalks to spinnable fibre.

I also want to push my current record keeping habits -at best- writing down a harvest date, to also noting outdoor temperature averages in weeks leading up to harvest and other phenological observations. This will help in a multitude of ways of knowing what to look for as each year is a different climatic adventure. When you stop and think, a calendar date has absolutely nothing to do with the nature world at all and is pretty darn useless for telling much unless each year is exactly the same as the year before- and when has that happened? Phenology is the study of periodic plant and animal life cycle events and how these are influenced by seasonal and interannual variations in climate, as well as habitat factors. (Wikipedia)

When we are living connected to the land and the seasons, phenological awareness becomes a crucial way of knowing place, – by noting what else is happening around us – and using that as a check point. For years I have mentally noted harvest times for a few plants- such Himalayan Blackberry- even using seasonal observation in the early spring to forecast a likely summer harvest window. These are good habits to have learned over the years, but I seem to always fall short of taking the time to sit and write down my notes for future reference. Similar to that old, “I don’t need to mark what is in these solar dye jars, I will totally remember in 3 weeks”… Sometimes I do, but with fibre harvests that are on an annual cycle, it is SO much harder to hold the finer points of discovery from one turn through all seasons to the next.

Though I am a decade into this research, it is often undertaken in an unorganized spontaneous kind of way and I am excited about embracing this project as an opportunity to formalize the learning and make it all that much richer. It has been a great part of running the Dyers Club – to both share with a group the wonders of changes in the garden each visit as well as having a shared document online for collective note-taking of our dye research. If I let myself have grand thoughts, I could go so far as to say this group will become the  team for acquiring what could be an incredibly valuable resource for any spinner, weaver or basket-maker working on the Pacific west coast wanting to work with seasonal bounty.

The power of Group Think, or Doing-It Together

Ages ago I was encouraged to write a Vision Statement- something to have as a creative filter in project choices – a method for keeping focus of ‘where I wanted to be when I grew up’.

My statement began with To meet with others through common work. I still relate to this in how I think about the projects I want to do as I have always learned best in groups. I seem to really thrive in a place of collective accountability.

I admit the pressure of reporting to a group helps me push against my distractible tendencies.

I also know I work well with structure, so formalizing my research year into a series of monthly group sessions will start us off with a general plan of the plant calendar. It also gives me space for work days between each session to continue pulling at discovered threads worth following.

When I think about how this unknown group might work together I am reminded of a beautiful moment I hold up for how our Guild might function in time. A few years ago I taught a group of women from Hives for Humanity how to split and strip English ivy. It was research as we collectively considered a social enterprise model for selling prepped ivy to local weavers. I had expected to discuss a sort of cottage industry piece-meal model, but these women of mixed abilities all  just naturally fell into a collective method of supporting each other getting as much work done as possible. At differing speeds, sharing the tasks in the most effective group way – passing tasks on at different stages to the one who did that task the fastest- it was an incredible thing to witness and be a part of that group success for a job done well.

How a small group of people can work together, share labour while striving toward a common goal is such a poignant human experience connected to good daily living. We often work most happily and efficiently when we work together. I am looking forward to introducing a new group of individuals to both Trillium North Park and Means of Production where we grow materials, to short work sessions, group processing and division of what the day’s activities provide for personal projects with a shared meal thrown in for good measure.

I am looking forward to witnessing the incredible, creative and diverse ways the fibres we harvest get used, and how people will inspire each other with techniques-paired-to-plant discoveries and their project intentions.

Beginning in March we will start off processing by hand milkweed, nettle and dogbane stalks I harvested this fall- so folks get their hands on fibres right away and learn a tactile sense of how nature-retted fibers can differ from different fall harvest days. We will do some early site investigation of overwintered plants, strip barks- fruit and willow- for basketry and also start a small shared linen plot. In May we will head to Barnston Island to meet the Russell’s who are an important part of our local fibre shed- Susan and John raise Romney X sheep on their  small homestead that feels a world away from the city yet is oddly a short drive. This year I am looking forward to being there for shearing day with the group- and feeling what the fleeces from last year’s lambs that are Romney x CVM (California Variegated  Mutant)  are like. Our group will have first pick after Susan of a wonderful coloured fleece to share!

My plans for our summer days include wood ash research into various vines such as wisteria, and also tracking and harvesting rope-making fibres such as primrose and lupin stalks and blackberry canes. Autumn will find us harvesting and retting flax, processing nettle, milkweed, fireweed, dogbane- full circle back to where we started to complete the learning. It will be a 9 month journey which I realize is too much time for many, so I am building the guild to allow some space for seasonal participants and I think this social shift up will be an interesting part of our group dynamic.

Ambitious?

Absolutely, and for those of you who know me well enough to have listened to me go on and on about how this year was going to be a quiet one and I wasn’t going to do much; you didn’t really believe that anyway, and I am happy I am giving myself the space and time to be solidly dedicated to this adventure.

I am taking a bit of a chance- no grants are being written this winter- so there will be no other major projects to distract me from devoting myself to concentrating on what I have learnt and can build on- organizing a seasonal plant and processing calendar around what I already know – as well as providing me space, time and accountability to learning new plants and new harvest windows in the local calendar.  This program is a paid registration program and so should provide a modest monthly stipend to support the time doing the prep work to make the guild a success. I know that for every dye studio session the Natural Dyers’ Garden Co-op has I spend about 7-10 hours doing prep, and am factoring about 15-20 hours a month between sessions to keep the guild on target for keeping up with the seasonal changes.

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As last year wrapped up I took time to clean a studio fibre desk that was a foot deep in unsorted bundles, getting everything labeled and tagged at last, hung on a wall and ready for when the Seasonal Fibre Guild meets. I am thinking about what a harvest sheet tick box form might look like to allow us as a group to quickly and efficiently gather data as our collective notebook and other simple tools that might help us as a group take our understandings of the plants around us as deep as possible.

Basically, I am dreaming on these short cold days: a future summer bounty of learning and a little fibre-focused research community yet to be formed.

Are you interested in knowing place and the seasons more deeply through tactile plant-based learning? Are you an experienced or aspiring spinner, weaver or hand-skill worker interested in more time outdoors and less going to a store to buy gear for your creative time? If you live in the lower mainland of Vancouver I would love to have you join in, here is the link to the Seasonal Fibre Guild. For those of you far away, perhaps some year I can grow this model and we try an online version. Let me know about your own fibre calendar. Meanwhile, wishing you creative days, warm nights and a gentle 2019.

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