Thursday, July 14, 2011

Unraveling the Fabric of History

handwoven flax fibers
Did you see the article about the discovery of the oldest hand-woven material on earth? Dating back 34,000 years, some 787 tiny pieces of textiles were discovered when scientists were tracking vestiges of ancient pollen trails.

Studying soil layers under a microscope they started finding evidence that prehistoric man not only manipulated the wild flax found in the area into what archaeologists hypothesize were pieces of rope, baskets and even clothing, but the samples were different colors!

Prehistoric man dyed the flax and used dye colors like yellow, red, blue, violet, black and green to beautify their craft work.  Did they plan patterns and decorative embellishments like we do today? The pieces are too small to tell, but just the thought of that amazes me! Due to my own experience with fiber arts, the idea of prehistoric man dying fiber really piques my interest.
Early in my weaving career, I took a class in Natural Dying in college, a foray not into end-of-life planning, but into the beginning of life for many fiber-art projects. The class was filled with both weaving enthusiasts and college students who needed a couple more art credits on their transcript. For the most part, this latter group of students was a rambunctious group of youngsters, there to have fun in their experimentation with art. The class was pretty extensive, covering the most basic rituals of preparing the fiber to be dyed, using appropriate mordants (used to help secure the dye in the fibers and keep it from fading) and through the dying processes used for many different dye materials.

At the most fundamental, we walked along the dike of the Rio Grande River collecting berries, bark and flowers and brought them back to the classroom to learn the process of dying with each item. At the most chemically processed end, we made boiling vats of Kool-aid that we used to test the colorant process, another lively option in the fiber dying world.

Our Professor, Master Weaver Kay Laws, a serious student of fiber arts and conscientious teacher who passes down her knowledge and love of weaving to anyone interested in learning, painstakingly took us through each process. I remember standing at each dying station as Kay carefully lowered her fibers into the bubbling dye vats, taking copious notes to ensure success in my future dying projects while some of the students were much less interested in the actual methods used. One young student not keen on note taking but filled with the need for self-expression, hung her long blond hair over the localized Kool-Aid vats and had other students dunk large piece of her hair into the different colored dye pots.

She hung her head there for a dizzying length of time, the scent of Blastin' Berry Cherry and Mountainberry Punch lingering with her long after she righted herself. I’m not sure exactly how Kay felt about this girl’s take on the dying project. At first she seemed a little annoyed, probably more from the disruption of her lesson than anything else, but soon she was eyeing the vibrant outcome with the rest of us. The girl danced around the room showing off the long chunks of her hair that were dyed in amazing Kool-aid induced psychedelic explosions of color.

Thinking again about human development, advancements in crafting techniques and prehistoric man, I try to picture how the process of dying was for them. Did they have some rudimentary vats that they filled with dye material that churned with boiling liquid as they carefully lowered in their flax fibers? I picture this scene in my mind and then see an exuberant, prehistoric teenage girl step into the frame as she flips her hair forward into the dye pot, hanging her head there for a dizzying length of time, the smell of wild blackberries and raspberry bark lingering with her long after she rights herself and runs to show off the long chunks of vibrant color in her hair.

At the same site where they found the abundant samples of woven flax fiber, they also found some small evidence of the processing of animal fur. Was the next step after working with flax fiber harvesting sheep’s wool and carefully lowering it into the dye bath for the first time in the evolution of mankind? Is it possible that the need for youthful self-expression like the girl in my class exhibited could have led to the glorious history of dying and weaving animal fiber? We’ll probably never know, but someone had to have taken a chance and lowered those wool fibers into that vat of dye for the first time. Thinking of this history should remind us to take chances with our art and crafting, experiment with our process once in a while, combine new materials or processes and let your self-expression guide you… you never know the amazing places it may take you!

Tartan Sheep at England's National Wool Week 2010