Friday, April 27, 2012

Arbor Day

Many years ago I lived, for a short while in Omaha, Nebraska. One day a friend and I visited a neighboring town, Nebraska City, where I learned about Arbor Day. Its founder, Julius Morton, a journalist and politician worked to improve agricultural conditions, not only in Nebraska but, throughout the U.S. as the Secretary of Agriculture under President Cleveland. While serving on the Nebraska state board of agriculture, he proposed the idea of a special day devoted to the planting of trees to stress their importance. The first Arbor Day was held on April 10, 1872 and an impressive one million trees were planted. Many states would follow suit, however the date often varied due to climatic differences affecting optimal planting time. In 1970, President Nixon proclaimed Arbor Day to be celebrated on the fourth Friday in April. Many countries today have set aside special days of festivities featuring reforestation.

So, today the topic should be the relationship between a tree and textiles.

Many textiles have their fiber origins in the plant realm but I have chosen two textiles for you to consider: Silk and Tapas. Both of these textiles depend upon the mulberry tree, genus Morus. While there are ten or so varieties of mulberry we shall consider two of them.

The first is the white mulberry (M.alba) so called because of the white fruit it bears, native to Asia and cultivated in southern Europe. Its importance is, of course, the leaves, which are fodder for those voracious little moth larvae, known as “silkworms”. There are many types of wild moths whose larvae produce silk filament cocoons, each morphologically different to some degree. These “silkworms” feed on oak, cherry and mulberry leaves. Their “silk” is brownish in color and may be up to 3 times the thickness of the filament of the cultivated Bombyx mori. This wild type of silk is referred to as “tussah”.

Over the many centuries B.mori have been bred for the quantity of eggs produced and the quality of silk filament produced. Moths may lay 500-700 eggs, which are incubated in the spring when the mulberry trees are in leaf. One ounce of silkworm eggs will require nine tons of leaves to reach maturity, and will eventually produce 12 pounds of silk filament.

The second species of mulberry is the “paper” mulberry. Its inner bark yields a fiber used in Asia for papermaking and in Polynesia for the coarse fabric called Tapa in Fiji, Kapa in Hawaii, and Saipo in Samoa. After the trees are felled the bark is stripped from the trunk and soaked for several days making it soft and flexible. The rough outer bark is discarded and the soft pulpy strings of bast fiber are laid over a wooden anvil and beaten with wooden mallets to form sheets of cloth. This is done by groups of women. It is said that these tapa-making women were able to convey messages over great distances by beating in a rhythmic way and using a well understood code. Some believe the code itself was embedded into the cloth and that the cloth could speak for itself.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Earth Day


When I see Earth Day on the calendar I always think of Rachel Carson, the author of The Silent Spring and three other books. But it was her last, The Silent Spring, written in 1962 that had a lasting impact upon our view of the environment. Carson, a biologist and natural scientist, became concerned with what she viewed as the indiscriminant use of chemicals and their impact on the ecology. Ecology wasn’t exactly a buzzword at that time and few took seriously the role we all have as stewards of our planet. She was not opposed to the use of pesticides and herbicides, but wanted further study of the effects of their use and, more importantly, wanted the public to be informed so that they could make judgements . Carson died on April 15, 1964, 6 years and 1 week before the first recognized Earth Day.

Earth Day, April 22, 1970, began under the sponsorship of Gaylord Nelson, U.S. Senator from Wisconsin and eventually led to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency. Today Earth Day is recognized by more than 140 nations.

Textiles and our environment
Today we talk about sustainable resources and renewable resources. Resources we can use without depleting the supply, by careful management such as reforesting tree sites, are renewable. Planting fast growing plants, such as bamboo for building materials as well as textile fibers and careful husbandry of food source and fiber producing animals are other examples. Sustainable resources are those which, if we were to keep use of these resources under strict control, would provide for the need. Petroleum and coal are two such resources that come immediately to mind. Obviously the problem with these resources is controlling not only the supply, but the increasing demand.

Textiles are a case in point. Many have been promoting the merits of the use of natural fibers for some time now, citing the advantages of comfort and renewability of the fiber sources. Throughout the world there are many plant and animal sources for textile fibers: hemp, jute, cotton, nettle, flax, and the wool and hair of countless animals. It will come as no surprise that all these fibers combined (with the possible exception of cotton) are outweighed by the production of synthetic fibers and filaments. The advantages of this production are many. They are cost effective, the fibers themselves can be controlled and thus the fabric produced can be controlled. They may be wrinkle resistant, fire retardant, easy to dye. And that little bit of spandex in your jeans makes them both comfortable and attractive to wear. But all this comes at a cost, of course. Synthetic production depends upon petroleum-based materials. So not only are we filling our cars we are wearing a sustainable resource. Sustainable, if we keep the demand less than the supply.

Just something to think about.

Much is written about reuse, repurposing and recycling materials. Please consider donating gently used garments to shelters. Most of what we discard is perfectly useable and there is much need. Household linens are always wanted. Even worn towels and bedding can be used in animal hospitals and shelters. Textiles can be re-purposed into pillows, chair cushions and soft toy for children. There are many groups who are willing to convert useable fabric into fashionable rugs and home accessories. Start by asking your church members, gym partners and neighbors. You will be surprised by these resources!

Friday, April 13, 2012

Knitting and Crochet Work

I volunteer at the Southside branch of the Santa Fe Library in the Children’s Room and every week two very special volunteers work along with me, Bernice Pearl and Ethel Trujillo. Both Bernice and Ethel also volunteer at other nonprofits, but today I will tell you of their very special gifts of textiles to the community. 

Bernice is a transported New Yorker and one of the busiest women I know. Her gift is knitting hats, not just a dozen or so a year, but most probably, hundreds of warm, colorful hats, which she donates to shelters, hospitals and organizations in Santa Fe and throughout New Mexico. If I see someone, perhaps at a bus stop, wearing a stripped knitted hat on a cold morning, I could guess from where it came. 


Ethel belongs to a Prayer Shawl Ministry group, called the Sewing Angels, at her parish, Santa Maria de la Paz. They knit and crochet prayer shawls, afghans, baby blankets and hats and donate them wherever there is a need, here as well as missions as far as Guatemala. Some of Ethel’s baby hats have traveled far to China. Their current project is to make baby blankets for two organizations who distribute them where they are needed. As you can see these are exquisitely created with much care and love.

If you live in the Santa Fe area and have yarn you wish to donate to these causes, please email me:


So today I will write about knitting and crochet work. Both of these techniques are categorized as Single Element structures, which means working a single element (thread or yarn) with itself. Other examples are linking and looping and knotted looping. Knitting and crochet are considered inter-looping because the loops of yarn are drawn through previously worked stitches.

In knitting the loops are worked vertically and if one loop is missed or damaged the entire row of vertical stitches will be released, although not adjacent stitches. This accounts for the unfortunate event of “snagging” stockings, resulting in a “run”, both obvious and costly as the stocking is then ruined. Fortunately, modern construction techniques have somewhat eliminated this mishap.

Crochet is worked both vertically and laterally and each new stitch is secured as soon as it is completed. Because of this, the combination of stitches is vast and patterns are nearly limitless.

The history of knitting is an old one. The word comes from Anglo-Saxon “cynttan”. Which means creating by hand. Examples in Egyptian tombs date as early as the 5th C B.C. and knitting was widely known throughout Europe by the 14thC. The first knitting machine was introduced in 1589, and the first power knitting machine in 1832 in America and in 1851 in England.

Crochet is a more modern handwork, known in Europe since the 16thC, chiefly practiced by nuns and classified as ‘nun’s work” along with lace-making and embroidery. It became fashionable in England and Scotland in the first half of the 1800’s. The word “crochet” is from the French, “croches, or croc” and the Danish “krooke” (hook).

Today these types of “handwork” remain extremely popular and many yarns of wonderful textures and glorious colors are readily available. It is still possible to find lovely, older, examples of crochet and knitted work in thrift shops, antique shops and nearly everyone’s grandmother’s attic.

Friday, April 6, 2012


Last weekend, the Wall Street Journal featured an article on trends in men’s wear.  At the bottom of the page they illustrated 5 “quality slickers” ranging in price from $375 to $2,695 for an “Oversized Weatherproof Parka” by Burberry, presumably, at that price you would be “proofed” for any weather condition imaginable.  Today the weather here is rain mixed with a bit of snow.  We do get some snow in Santa Fe, the remarkable part is there is rain!!! We consider rain a blessing and it is greeted with great joy by everyone except  tourists.  So the topic today is RAINCOATS.

The idea of waterproofing fabric to make clothing and protective wrappings is an old one. Some say native Amazonians used the milky sap from rubber trees. Europeans tried waterproofing fabric through the early 1800’s. G. Fox & Co of London is credited with the manufacture of the first raincoat in 1821.Raincoats are made water resistant or repellent by treating the fabric with chemicals or compounds. While early fabrics were treated with rubber this did not produce the most satisfactory garment: hot, in summer and stiff and brittle in winter.

Macintosh, a chemist and manufacture of chemicals in Scotland patented a process for making suitable fabric for rain wear by combining rubber with the fabric in 1823 and production began in 1824. In Great Britain, even today, these garments are called Macintoshes or Macs. In1849 a process called calendaring was being used in America, which involved passing the fabric through heated rollers under pressure. This Macintosh fabric was waterproof, but also more pliable.

For the British military in WWI, Thomas Burberry created the Trench Coat, which became a classic. Brown, khaki or black, it had ten buttons, was double breasted with raglan sleeves and cuff straps. And was worn belted. Picture this: a handsome, well-built man stands on a bridge in a European city. It is drizzling with rain and he wears a trench coat with the collar turned up, his hands in the pockets. SPY!!

Today there are many waterproofing materials; their use is determined by the type of fabric: cotton, wool, nylon or other synthetics used to create the garment. Raincoats come in many styles, and in great designs and colors. Especially sweet, I think, are the vinyl raincoats made for children, often with matching rain boots.