Have We Lost Our Buttons?

Every house should have its button box. I suspect one time every house did. Spare buttons were very much part of the mending culture, when recycling in the craft of use was not so much a principle of sustainability as a common sense practice. But their omnipresence in past domestic life  is also the reason why they’re a good subject for commodity history. 

In The Button Box the English historian Lynn Knight starts from her family’s button collection, passed down three generations, to tell the story of women in the 20th century. Buttons are peripheral things and yet they often outlast the garments they once adorned. Which means they can function as repositories of history – when given proper attention. Knight writes lively history through humble haberdashery.

Take Knight’s great-aunt Eva’s gauntlets for instance. Starting from the buttons, you can’t but admire the chocolate colour and the buttonholes, gusset and cuffs edged in caramel-coloured leather. In the early 1920s such gauntlets were associated with the well-off sporting woman’s wardrobe, well out of the reach of the working-class likes of Eva. But within a few years they were a popular choice for daywear, in particular when women dressed up to go shopping. Or, with one button reference, Knight enables us to feel the relief that the First World War was finally over and the special delight that consuming held then.

When they’re individually named, you probably pay more attention not to lose your (flapper) buttons.

Through Eva’s one-bar buttoned post-war shoes, we also get to imagine the accompanying stockings that came in vivid colours – with colour becoming the shorthand of modernity. And with the colourful stockings also appeared the garter buttons decorated with the flapper’s stylized faces – an attractive, wide-eyed Betty Boop-like creature.

That these were indeed exciting, modern times, Knight further illustrates with reference to the so-called flapper vote. Following the partial enfranchisement ten years earlier of women aged 30 and over, if they had a household qualification, 1928 saw the extension of the franchise to women aged 21. But Dame Millicent Fawcett, founder member of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, was not too pleased by the phrase: “Why call them flappers? Why call them girls?” The route to full emancipation of the admired “modern young woman” was still a long way off.

Knight takes us on an ingenious tour of domestic and social history over the last century or so. A jet button prompts thoughts over the elaborate rituals of mourning. A linen button, made to survive the mangle, brings into focus the working-class matrons who once patronized her great grandparents’ haberdashery shop. A Land Army button allows her to mention the Second World War – and so on. In sum, Knight lets buttons and by extension clothes speak as emblems of self-expression, social class and the attempts to escape it. This is fashion approached as a true cultural force and material history in the best of the storytelling tradition.

When do we think of the obvious fact that pearl buttons are made of shells?

The boring black-and-white illustrations at the beginning of each chapter don’t do the wealth of stories in this book justice. It would be nice to see a fully illustrated version that shows the original buttons, the corresponding clothes and all the other objects Knight refers to. More information on the then domestic and working conditions of textile workers could inspire reflection on the human cost of fashion now. And what about a list that helps readers to date their own button collection?

My very own button box, with a very young Baudouin (without glasses!), then Duke of Brabant, later fifth King of the Belgians (1951-1993).
I wonder what stories its contents (including my latest acquisitions on the right in the picture) could tell.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m a crafter. I like objects and materials.            I think they can speak to us, as the many recent commodity histories demonstrate. But I also like reflection. So, when humble buttons can exemplify the past, what can our relation with “stuff” more generally        tell us about our lives now?

According to the cultural trend watcher James Wallman, consumerism no longer holds delight. People are actually suffering from stuff in a process that he’s baptized “stuffocation”. His starting observation is that, instead of feeling enriched by the things we own, we feel stifled by their accumulation. In the terms of this post: we may have lost our buttons – simply by having too many. Stuff clutters up our homes, it causes stress and it’s bad for the planet. Stuffocation then is the material equivalent of the obesity epidemic.

Put in such terms, the solution is simple: reduce your material possessions or at least the value you attach to them. Through true-life stories Wallman presents three radical solutions: minimalism, “the simple life” and “the medium chill”. In a nutshell, minimalists live with as few objects as possible, “simple lifers” take Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854) as their lifestyle bible, and with the motto “take it easy”, the medium chiller turns away from material success to a slower, gentler and more human way of living.

The common characteristic of these alternatives is that they react to the dominant value system and measure achievement differently. Yet Wallman doesn’t think any of them will replace materialism. Few people know for instance that after only two years, Thoreau gave up voluntary simplicity and returned to the modern world, arguing that he had “several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one”. The point is not only that simple living is not very stimulating, it’s also all but simple to live without modern conveniences. The medium chill, according to the trend watcher, doesn’t feel aspirational enough and it does not provide people to indicate their status: that’s why it won’t appeal to most people. And the same goes for minimalism.

How do minimalists celebrate National Lost Sock Memorial Day (May 9)?

I’m intrigued by these stories, especially the minimalist obsession with numbers, as in: “I possess only 33 items”. I can’t get my head around this. When I look around me, just in the small space where I’m writing this, – no, I’m not even going to begin counting. Curiously, minimalists are very competitive: who can do with the least items? Part of the discussion then becomes what categories to use: are socks for instance to be counted separately, in pairs or as one single genre?

Wallman admits to 39 pairs of socks himself. More importantly, he addresses the issues material culture has come to define for most of us, such as identity, status and meaning. Returning for a moment to the clothes Lynn Knight describes through their buttons, the strength of her account is precisely that it identifies very clearly the relation between even humble objects and life-defining issues. Wallman also doesn’t condemn the relation: it’s simply what we’ve become accustomed to. His point is on the contrary that the issues are real: they’re deeply human needs and any alternative value system will need to satisfy them.

The trend watcher names experience as the next answer to our needs for identity and status. As the appeal of more stuff wanes, people are turning to experiences, like running a marathon, having a barbecue in the park or simply spending time with loved ones. This is not something you can have and hold: the 21th-century quest for the good life connects identity, meaning, status and happiness with something rather intangible that you do. And Wallman sees “experiental society” in practice today: experientalists take more holidays, go to increasingly popular festivals, spend more time (and money) on extravagant outdoor activities.

A great deal of the book is spent explaining how this urge for experience is compatible with the current economic system. Obviously not all businesses will survive. But as we’ve already seen the shift from goods to services, the system will now increasingly provide experiences. And to Wallman this is undeniably a good thing: the planet will suffer less, we will suffer less – and the human needs of identity and meaning will still be met. Everybody happy.

There’re a few shortcuts though. What the author describes very clearly is that the definition of the good life changes over time, relating to circumstances of scarcity or indeed abundance, to reflections about the state of our planet and so on. I take this to understand that there’s a lot of room to exercize our critical judgement – and act upon it. TINA-thoughts are not appropriate, this is a case for agency. But Wallman stays very much within the current frame.

Experience may indeed be the next big thing. But it’s not accidental that Wallman’s examples are almost exclusively outdoors – things to do rather than to be, with obvious consequences for consumerism, in terms of both materials and services to be provided to the experientalists. This then is still very much the framework of economic growth, or just another phase in the capitalist system.

Wallman claims some improvements, such as the fact that experiences are much more difficult to compare than, say, cars. That may be so but what if there is little or no intrinsic motivation to explore the Cambodian island of Koh Rong for instance, but only the desire to show off on social media? What if this is just a shift, away from the object but with the same aim: to distract us from important life issues?

It’s of course true that material accumulation for the sake of it offers very few people stable answers to their deeply felt needs. As mentioned earlier, the very feeling of being cheated out of satisfaction is indeed the driving force of the current economic and cultural system. And increasing numbers of people look for more meaningful lives. But does that mean we have to abandon the objects altogether – and turn uncritically to another promise of salvation and bliss? What if we haven’t lost our buttons at all, but simply paid them not enough attention?

In yet another Button Box the reader is encouraged to remember important people in her life, treasure her memories and in particular, tell stories. Debut author Janet Sever Hull has understood an important lesson: many people may need objects to connect with their inner needs and indeed, with other people. She invites the reader “to think of at least three things right off the top of your head which hold special memories for you and your family”. It may be the dinner table, or the family cookie jar, or indeed the button box, passed on from one generation to the next.

Obviously, it’s not necessarily the material value that makes an object special to us. As these button books show, it’s the stories they inspire that offer identity and meaning. The question then may become whether we allow objects to speak? Or are we too busy living our busy lives, suffering indeed from stuffocation, with no time to clear up, let alone tell or listen to the stories? Perhaps we should understand memories as some kind of experience too. But the stories evoked here require no conspicuous consumption. And the outdoors doesn’t feature either.

More generally, if we’re really looking to meet deeply human needs, I would claim it important to look indoors as well. To creative experiences, in crafts for instance. To the values of craftsmanship, such as attention, respect and patience. The intrinsic motivation to create. The inherently human desire to make – and to do it well. The effort to exercize our critical judgement and act upon it. The connection between head and hands. The kairos experience. And the value of stillness, the time creativity asks to be recognized and felt – or to let it bubble up from        our deeply buried selves.

The Button Art Museum clearly hasn’t lost its buttons: its boards on Pinterest provide ample inspiration. The experience of beauty creates space to be. And I believe that above all the ability for stillness is required in order to define better our quest for the good life.

This simple button inspiration can be.
But it can also be the stuff of fairytales.
Feel free to daydream,
When you experience simply being, your buttons will remain with you.

January Blues

Blue Monday has come and gone, yet the January Blues will still be with us for another ten days or indeed longer. Wondering what to do about this, it struck me that each component of that set phrase carries a ‘two-faced’ meaning (at least).

Take January, derived from Janus, the Roman god of beginnings, gates, transition, time, doorways, passages and endings. The traditional portrayal is a man with literally two faces: he sees both past and future. Janus is thus about time – and how we deal with it. In January we seem to hang somewhere in between. The parties are over, there are no big festivities in sight and Spring (light!) seems a long long way away. Interestingly, the gates of the Janus Temple in Rome were closed only during peacetime, which was very rare: the common practice was open doors meaning war and conflict. We have not had a peaceful year, yet Janus has closed it. And opened another, must we expect (more) conflict? Or put differently, ‘something’ has ended, do we trust it will be followed by a new beginning? And what might that entail?

Janus flask, 1st century AD (The J. Paul Getty Museum).
An interesting modern Janus. I’m not sure though what the hole might signify.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In a similar vein, the other component of the phrase, blue is equally ambiguous. As most of us, the French historian Pastoureau and the French-American artist Bourgeois associate the colour with rest and peace. Yet blue clearly also evokes melancholia and dissatisfaction with the way things – we – are. How can it ‘work’ both ways?

In On Being Blue the American philosopher and writer William Gass defines blue as ‘the color of the interior life’. And we all know that interior life isn’t always as restful as it could be. Gass’ inquiry itself is not very calm. I must admit the booklet rather unnerved me as I didn’t get a grip on what it was trying to say or do. I started reading it a number of time – and put it away in frustration. Learning a little more about Gass himself helped. He’s usually associated with American Postmodernism and he conducts experiments at the level of a sentence itself: he’s for instance much more interested in the sound than in the meaning of the words. And because he finds readers overall too hung up on content his euphonic style aims to free them from the linear conventions of narrative. No wonder I was flabbergasted! It’s nice of Gass though to define this different way of experiencing the beauty of language (in his collection of essays A Temple of Texts) in textile terms:

The act of reading [is the act] of looping the loop, of continually returning to an earlier group of words, behaving like Penelope by moving our mind back and forth, forth and back, reweaving what’s unwoven, undoing what’s done.

In fact the colour is almost a pretext for the listomaniac Gass who demonstrates, repeatedly, how a small word of four letters can delight us with so many shades, tones, flavours, meanings, connotations and expressions. On Being Blue is above all a inquiring reflection on language – and the melancholia it provokes. 

Melancholia is also very much present in Bluets by the American writer Maggie Nelson. Here again is a little booklet that testifies to the love of blue and combines it with the loss of love and (bodily but also mental) health. Again it does not associate blue with being restful or at peace. Nelson also seems to have something with lists and challenging ‘ordinary’ narrative: her ‘story’ is made up out of numbered paragraphs, the function of which is not immediately obvious. And she too seems to be weaving: personal feelings, experiences, anecdotes and thoughts add up to a quest into obsession and the (im)possibility of human connection.

Both Gass and Nelson offer wonderful lists of expressions in English that contain the word blue. And they are many, certainly compared to Dutch – are we to think of Dutch speakers as less interested in ‘the interior life’? To leave something blue blue (iets blauw blauw laten) for instance means to leave something for what it is, obviously not a good start for a quest of any kind. And to run a little blue (een blauwtje lopen) is to be rejected in love – a failure in connection that most likely will cause the blues. There is only one common expression that surprisingly has a totally different meaning in either language: in Dutch a ‘blue Monday’ stands for ‘a short time’. What’s even more intriguing is that blauw used to have the figurative meaning of ‘insignificant, null, of little value’. Among a number of assumptions about this etymology, my preferred one is the so-called wool-colouring hypothetis.

Display of indigo materials in the Museum of Industry, Labour and Textile (MIAT) in Ghent.

In the textile regions of the Low Countries the wool dyers were a powerful guild. And thus introduced their interpretation of dying with indigo into the Dutch language. The laborious indigo process takes various stages. First the wool is soaked into a yellow looking dye. It’s only when the wool is hung up to dry and thus exposed to the oxygen in the air that the colour turns blue. Traditionally the soaking was done on Saturdays, the drying on Mondays. On a blue Monday then the wool dyers couldn’t work: the day was thus ‘of no significance’. Or rest – that isn’t valued.

Summarizing where all of this has got us, both January and blue carry a multitude of meanings and associations which together form an altogether ambivalent mixture. Perhaps that in itself is the current attraction of the phrase: we ourselves feel ambivalent. Especially in a month that is still defined by endings, we’re uncertain and reluctant to contribute to the creation of new beginnings. And it seems we’re not very good at dealing with uncertainty and risk. 

Yet already in 1986 (1992) Ulrich Beck defined the Risk Society as a new stage of modernization in a way that matches our experiences: society’s characteristics, its power structures, its knowledge and authority norms, its definition of identity have changed – are changing. What is distinct about this stage of modernity is that the risks are the product of the modernization process itself, that is, they are man-induced. According to Beck risk society is thus characterized by an absence, namely the impossibility of attributing the hazards externally. That means that (most of the) risks we’re facing depend on human decisions and are thus politically reflexive. The awareness of the ecological problems for instance is illustrated by the now common concepts of sustainability and the precautionary principle.

It seems that Beck mainly wanted to warn against risk management as an exercise in bureaucratic rationality or technocracy, including the contempt for the public perception of risk. This is a powerful plea against both TINA (There Is No Alternative) and downplaying the anxieties of ‘ordinary’ people who, because modern risk is spread unevenly, have reason to fear it. This is written more than thirty years ago! But we don’t appear to have done much with Beck’s analysis. 

And it begs the question what is to be done now. If it were up to me I would argue for more reflexivity, for more people involved in that reflexive exercise and thus being equipped to partake. In Flanders the reform of secondary schooling is very hot right now but I’m not sure it includes the tools we’re talking about here. I fear we forget too often that ‘school’ is derived from the Greek σχολή (scholē), originally meaning ‘leisure’. And surely leisure must be blue according to the common association of the word: it requires a certain peace at the level of the interior life, so that being open to new experiences and learning new things become possible (again).

Reflexivity requires time and space. It requires the revaluation of rest. And it requires resilience, in the first place to be able to stand in ‘the heat’ of uncertainty, to feel and live it fully – before taking action of any kind. Of course I believe that ‘making’ in the earlier named sense of aspiring craftsmanship, flow and kairos can induce a good climate for ‘enlightened’ reflection. 

To stay within the theme: blue weaving in what is actually a knitting pattern
& linear felt lines – to return to a more restful narrative?

 

 

 

 

 

Here I would like to suggest another path which, of course, many others have favoured far more eloquently, including the English writer Jeanette Winterson: turn to beauty! This is for once no advice to do something but to be. Accept that we live at a critical conjuncture, don’t resist it but wallow in it so to speak. We don’t need more instant opinions or immediate debates. We need space to be and wonder, stillness to reflect and define better the quest of the good life. When we are touched by beauty, we are ‘null’ and ‘insignificant’ in terms of of economic utility – and that’s the point. Let’s create more space outside productivity and consumerism and thus bolster our sometimes fragile human nature. Think of it as a temporary respite that allows restocking on energy. In Winterson’s words:

Art is my rod and staff, my resting place and shield,

and not mine only, for art leaves nobody out.

Put differently, art can sooth us and thus strengthen our resilience – which we’ll need when it does become time to act. I’m very much looking forward to Kairos Castle at Gaasbeek near Brussels: conceptualized by the Dutch philosopher Joke Hermsen I expect the exhibition to refer to her argument for restful space, in order e.g. by art to become spirited again. But the exhibition opens only in Spring. I also know visiting a concert or an exhibition isn’t always possible and it generally involves doing a number of things. So what to do about our January Blues?

Perhaps it doesn’t always need to be arduous. We are talking about a temporary shield after all. It can take different shapes at different times, as long as it replenishes us in terms of wondering inquiry and energy. Wouldn’t simply listening to or looking at beauty do the trick right now?
Years ago I experienced great flow compiling a handmade booklet with (to me) beautiful blue images. Nobody ever saw it.

The ambivalence of being & wanting blue.
Composing the collages was fun
yet the eye has remained very blue indeed.

 

 

 

 

But low and behold, our ‘modern’ times have created not only man-induced risks but also marvelous ways of summoning sources of inspiration and joy – and the ability to share them. I happily put you on your way with my textile discography and three citations from my Pinterest board Feeling Blue.

Don’t leave the January Blues (here by Natalie 
Foss) blue blue, go for an inspiring & spirited quest for
beauty & don’t forget to wrap yourself kindly.

 

A Humble Trick to Happiness

There’s a lot to do in Belgium these days about so-called workable, meaningful and adaptable work. We should all work longer, yet potential employers fear less productivity and discriminate against candidates from 47 onwards. With a ‘normal’ trajectory, you should be about halfway your career then – another twenty years to go! At the same time long-term absence through sickness or burn-out has never been higher. And yet the ceo of a large employers’ federation managed to comment on the national radio that with burn-out, the problem isn’t work – but all the other activities that fill people’s free time. No outcry followed.

There is also little sense that this discussion (and the action, with yesterday a national manifestation against the government measures concerning work), should be about what the good life consists of. The Flemish suicide rates are about one and a half percent higher than the European average, for women Flanders sits uncomfortably in the top together with Lituania and Hungary. Apparently we have the wrong attitude towards finding help and our problem solving behaviour and communication aren’t good either. Just today the media were already happy that the number of Belgians who take antidepressiva stagnated from 2014 to 2015. This ‘happy’ news is rather sour when one considers that’s still one in ten, or a rise of 16,5% in 10 years’ time. And it suggests that we, as a society, have learnt to accept this sorry state of affairs.  

Yet ‘happiness’ or ‘well-being’ is everywhere you look and compared to previous generations we have armies of ‘health workers’ in the broadest sense of the word at our disposal. Surely all the attention to positive psychology should offer us all we need to improve our psychological health? happiness-industry2In The Happiness Industry William Davies forcefully questions that: emotions have simply become a new resource to be bought and sold.  In a sense capitalism has further expanded. What the system used to regard with suspicion – feeling, friendship, moral responsability, creativity – have now all been co-opted for the purpose of maximising profits. It seems that there is nothing that cannot be instrumentalized. And all this is done via a psychological approach which, because of its individualistic focus, does not need to acknowledge a larger ideological framework. Attention is simply displaced.

Meaningful work, in the Belgian government’s terms: workable work, seems laudable in the view of so many unhappy workers. But the fact that its twin, adaptable work, is virtually always mentioned in the same breath, raises suspicion: are we talking about the well-being of people – or of the system? How come this discussion doesn’t include an analysis of underlying economic or social causes? Why do we hear so little about the societal sources of this state of affairs? When and how did it happen that the collective is reduced to the point that it’s not even mentioned in talk about trends which by definition cannot be individual? In a similar vein as the ceo cited earlier, some psychologists concluded after the economic crash of 2008 that the problem was not the bank system but the emotions of the bank workers. And since how you feel cannot be argued against, it’s conveniently insulated from all debate.

Happiness is not divorced from the material conditions in which we live. Intuitively we all know that it’s bound up with our activities, whether work or otherwise. It is not a mere subjective affair.  Yet that’s the way it’s presented – and very succesfully it is too. We all seem to have incorporated the notion that our psychological state is 1) very important and 2) our very own individual responsability. We’re thrown back at ourselves to improve things. And lo and behold, there is a whole new ‘industry’ that is devoted to our well-being, that offers this training, that method, this diet or supplements, that course of action, that will raise our level of happiness. The offer is there, manifold. If you’re still not happy, evidently it’s your own fault.

I have very mixed feelings about this. Davies’ argument is compelling and I do believe the discussion about the good life should also be conducted at a collective level. Yet when one feels unhappy, surely it’s legitimate that one tries to do something about it. I too aim to improve my well-being in a variety of ways. And I do think it’s mostly up to me. That makes me so to speak a collaborator who maintains the Happiness Industry as Davies describes it. Is there another way?

Just last Saturday I was at a workshop where someone asked for a “simple trick when things do not go well”. In managerial terms this would be a ‘quick win’. How could you be against that? But this is of course a rather desperate question of someone who may not be able to carry all that individual responsability. And I saw many people in the room nodding as if to say: yes, I feel the same and I would like to know a way out too. There was, not surprisingly, no answer: if we no longer believe in the collective, there can also be no straightforward recipes that work for everyone.

Yet commercially the myth of the collective booms. Especially the immensely popular literature on self-help and well-being thrives on the assumption that one size may fit all. Read this book and the world will change for all of you. It’s telling that Gretchen Rubin apologises repeatedly in The Happiness Project that she tells her own story, in the hope that it may be inspiring for others. happiness-projectAlthough not really unhappy, she concentrated for twelve months on how to improve the quality of her life. Within a carefully chosen theme per month she defines a number of very concrete aims – and reports honestly on their realisation (or not). Inez van Oord, creator of the successful magazins Seasons and cirkelHappinez, combines in If Life Is a Circle (in Dutch) her individual story with a more generalistic approach.  I personally think The Happiness Project works better: the individual account is indeed inspiring. It’s not a ‘simple trick’ that everyone should follow blindly, it’s an open invitation to explore possibilities on the basis of what they did for the author. General recommendations so often are, well, so very general that they cannot drag you into action. Rubin also doesn’t claim any quick wins, her story is one of careful thought, concentration and persistence. 

I too have my own personal list of “tricks” for “when things don’t go well”. And among the most effective for me is being creative. Of course that begs the question: what is ‘being creative’? Recently I expressed my incomprehension about wanting to make your own jam – when there are so many delicious jams to be had, without much effort apart from choosing from the bewildering offer. The reply was swift: and why would anyone want to make one’s own clothes or jewelry? Point taken! It’s irrelevant what it is, as long as it works for you. And in the quest for your own set of tricks, it’s inspiring to learn how others found and or changed their expression of creativity.

In the already mentioned Why We Make Things kornPeter Korn relates how he started off as a self-made craftsman who really struggled to continue to learn ànd to find appreciation for his craftsmanship. Yet he ended up as an school administrator, creating the circumstances in which others can learn and create more at ease. To the repeated critique that he denounced his creative mission, he replies that he is still being creative, albeit in a different way. I love this story, especially because it shows how narrowmindedly we usually interpret creativity. And how broad its range can be.

The creative process is a mystery. And unless we’re talking about out-of-reach artistic genius, I sincerely believe anything can be a source of inspiration. The point is to be curious and explore, whether in terms of subject, materials, techniques – or all of them at once. It’s about focal attention to the point of reaching flow. It’s about activities that we want to do well for their own sakes. It’s about slow time or kairos in which we may see a glimpse of the good life. 

For me, creativity is (among others) about fabrics and fibers. So let me show you some humble craft examples. They’re mostly imitations in the sense that I tried to reproduce an existing design or object into felt. They’re certainly not perfect. But I made them thoughtfully, with care and attention. And the necessary persistence tricked me into more well-being. 

geronimo-origineel
Probably the most famous mouse in the world,
geronimo1
needlefelted on a brooch for my godson who finally enjoys reading thanks to Geronimo Stilton.

 

 

 

 

 

 

img_1022
A delightful trumpet playing pig,
engel-vark
and her needlefelted sister. Especially the jaunty legs were a challenge 😉
haas5
And surely other animals can play an instrument too?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

img_1029
Or what about a piggy bank?
img_1038
Perhaps its decoration suggested that I should be saving to buy a house.
huisjessjaal
I bought a silk scarf instead and created my very own felt Monopoly street.

 

engeltje2
The humble guardian angel is mine,

 

 

 

 

 

img_1013
my niece made the painting. How delightful that she turned the colours around: she found her own expression of creativity!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the process of making these things I was happy. Because they were gifts and or home decoration, I hope the happiness contained in them spreads wider. And that might be a very humble contribution to making well-being a collective objective again.

Glorious Silk

Books are a great source of joy to me.

Especially (but not exclusively) when they also mention that other love of mine: textiles. I greatly admire novelists who manage to smuggle in all sorts of interesting information which may be technical, without disturbing the story. It is one way of making fabrics truly alive.

Alessandro Baricco is an Italian writer whose publications (in translation) I follow with great curiosity. Barrico has developed a wide variety of styles, which turns every new book into a surprise. The Barbarians Barbariansfor instance explores cultural shifts caused by the recent global connectivity. The author makes interesting observations about new developments in areas as different as football, wine and books. Unlike many others he resists cultural pessimism – which is one reason why I have recommended the book many times.

My Baricco favourite is Silk which tells the story of a nineteenth-century French trader turned smuggler of silkworm eggs, named Hervé Joncour. Because in Europe the silkworms are affected by disease, he must provide the many silk mills in his hometown with silkworms from much further afield, requiring him to travel to Africa, later to Japan and China. In Japan he becomes obsessed with the Bariccoconcubine of a local baron, she remains unnamed and they cannot communicate for the lack of a common language.

Almost in passing Baricco refers to the internal political turnmoil and growing anti-Western sentiment in Japan, which interests me being an historian – and which makes Joncour’s task even more ponderous. He delays his departure in the hope to see the concubine again but thus allows the eggs to hatch. As a direct result three of the silk mills in his home town are forced to close down. Joncour appears to have an affectionate relationship with his wife Hélène but here too communication is scarce. He doesn’t tell her about his obsession, she doesn’t tell him she knows. Eventually he receives a letter he believes to be of his Japanese beloved, only after Hélène’s death it turns out she wrote it, in the hope to see him happy.

Silk_film
Poster of the film based on Baricco’s novel.

Silk is almost a poem, in the sense that rather heavy emotions are expressed in a lyrical but serene language which allows the reader to sympathise with the different characters in a quiet, peaceful manner. Perhaps it’s the slow process of realising where true love resides, which makes the story so compelling: it is as if the precious silk worms stand for the quest of what is truly important in life. The poetic novel was made into a film in 2007.

Silk equally plays both a literal and a symbolic role in Zijdeman (Silk Man) by the Flemish author Kathleen Vereecken. Here too the vicissitudes of the silk industry provide the context of the story, but this time set in eighteenth-century Paris, the emphasis lies with different members of the same family, trying to come to terms with the disappearance of the father. Determined to be able to create silk himself and thus to become a more independent entrepeneur, he set off to buy Zijdemannot the fabric as he had done until then, but the silkworm eggs – never to return. It’s daughter Camille and son Louis whom Vereecken gives a voice. Camille lives in the safe cocoon of the silk shop but feels unsettling emotions of growing up and wanting freedom. She is also aware of the unrest in the city, which is based on the historic Parisian uprising of 1750. Louis is much younger and absolute in his belief in the father. He lives unencumbered in his phantasies and prepares for the father’s return by – successfully! – cultivating silk worms himself. The switching of perspectives (also emphasised by different lettertypes) works very well, the voices sound authentic and the reader is moved by both the heartfelt coming of age of Camille and the young boy’s perseverance. In this story too silk works well as a carrier of rich feelings – which does not unravel easily.  I’m very curious to see how this in its turn will be translated into a film, possibly with the use of motion capture.

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The different stages in the process   (1) silkworm on mulberry leave,      (2) emitting silk, (3 & 4) cocooning, (5) cross section of cocoon.

Both books refer to the miraculous process of the silk production which, as Louis discovers at first hand, is hazardous and time consuming. Little is revealed about the industry itself, how one manages then and now to unwind the silk threads – anyone who has handled simple wool will know how easily even twined threads get tangled – , and how the threads are then further processed into silk fabric. This may have lead the authors too far, they focus instead on the ‘natural’ process itself.

And so,  it was reading that got me fascinated by the cocoons.

I first saw them in Marrakech but didn’t know what they were then. In a Beijing silk shop they served as window decoration.The shop girls were very surprised indeed that a foreigner could be interested in such basic stuff, there was a lot of giggling before a price was settled. And fair it was too, as I discovered when I later found them in my local craft shop in Ghent.

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The cocoons resemble small eggs but they are in fact soft and textured. And the silk threads are intriguing fluffy and brittle.

 

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Antique silk bobin, textile paints & silk cocoons, one cut in half with the brown remnants of the worm.

It would be great to have a try at silk making but that’s probably taking my fascination a bit far.

Instead I wondered what I could do with the cocoons as I found them. Silk threads are so malleable, surely the cocoons would lend themselves to various manipulations as well?

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Silk cocoons, cut in circles & dyed, assembled into a necklace (work in progress).

 

I decided to try and make some jewelry: the cocoons are soft and light and will not irritate those who are allergic to the sensation of wool on their skin. I have a sense I’ve just started to discover the possibilities – watch further posts!

 

And I’ll be reading Silk Roads this Summer. With a subtitle that reads   A New History of the World I’m sure there’ll be more to share about               the glorious world of silk.