Things learned 2

Continuing on the theme of things learned at India Flint’s workshop recently…


I thought a good deal about the nature of knowledge.  How it is built up, a bit like sediment at the bottom of a river, microscopic layer by microscopic layer as information passes over and small deposits become part of the riverbed.  Once in a while comes a big event: a boulder of new thinking crashes in and becomes part of the muddy bottom, changing all that comes later and some of what came before.  A flood comes through, sweeping away some of the old and perhaps replacing it with new.  Some learnings feel like sludgy algae: they might be temporary and tentative and may or may not last.  Others have been there so long under so much pressure they are more like sedimentary rock and can only be eaten away by a lot of water passing by over a long period of time.  Troublesome if that ‘knowledge’ was inaccurate or those beliefs were unhelpful.


Knowledge is profoundly social.  We accumulate it consciously and unconsciously from the people around us.  Sometimes the path of acquisition is hard to trace.  In some ways, for example, I am very different from my parents.  But in other ways, I think I am very similar to them: I have taken values and inclinations from them at a very deep level but transformed them into a very different approach to the world.  There are profoundly common themes articulated in very different ways through our lives.  I just loved the learning environment of a workshop in which there was such a lovely balance of  overt instruction, observation, casual commentary, questions and answers, storytelling and demonstration.  I also loved learning from and about the other women in the workshop–sitting next to one another seeing other people’s ways, hearing people’s stories, coming across them in the street at lunchtime or turning up next to them in a cafe.


I also thought about forgetfulness and originality.  The conversation about originality in art and craft (as in other fields of life) is always interesting to me, but so often, also distressing.  The online world has created so many new ways for ideas and images and concepts and techniques to be shared, displayed, and passed around with and without agreement or awareness, that it raises new issues for originality.  But some of these issues are very old.  I found it fascinating to listen to accounts being exchanged of egregious or perhaps merely irritating uses of others’ ideas, terms, techniques or concepts.  At the same time, there were a couple of moments when I realised that something I thought I discovered for myself though years of trial and error had already been discovered (by India, for example), with the strong likelihood that I encountered it in her work and at some later point it came into my mind as a thing to try out, without any stamp attached to mark it as hers.  A bit like those moments when I struggle for the name of a person or a plant.  Sometimes, if I have time and can avoid panic, a name floats into my mind.  I haven’t invented it: I have learned it previously and retrieval from the archive is proceeding mighty slowly.  It seems like magic, but I am sure it could be explained by someone with a scientific approach to the brain. But it does open the way for making mistaken claims of originality, or just failing to acknowledge the work and ideas of others.


There’s another thing I notice about forgetfulness.  I have read Eco Colour more that once.  But I overheard a couple of questions India answered in part by saying “I wrote about that in Eco Colour in some detail” (or something like that).  In my mind, that thing just isn’t in that book.  It’s not a natural dyeing phenomenon: sometimes I start a detective novel and recognise the beginning but can’t for the life of me remember who the murderer turned out to be or what the crucial clue was.  I think it is extremely hard to remember things, even useful things, when you don’t yet have enough of a scaffolding of knowledge to fully understand them.  I am sure I have had this experience in dyeing hundreds of times already.  Perhaps more!  I notice my students having it in my classes every single day I teach.  I get something new from Jenny Dean or Ida Grae or India Flint every time I read them.   Always Coming Home by Ursula LeGuin has repaid every single reading I have given it with new treasure.  Each time I find new awareness of what is in these works, new understanding of how the parts form a whole, new insights or realisations, new inspirations.


I am not sure there is a conclusion to the question of human knowledge, forgetfulness or the matter of originality.  I don’t have one, at any rate!  Second Skin turned out to be a great opportunity to think new thoughts and hear what others are thinking on these questions, in an in-person setting and not in the online world, rich and interactive as it is.


I do like Elizabeth Zimmermann’s idea of unvention:  “ One un-vents something; one unearths it; one digs it up, one runs it down in whatever recesses of the eternal consciousness it has gone to ground. I very much doubt if anything is really new when one works in the prehistoric medium of wool with needles. … In knitting there are ancient possibilities; the earth is enriched with the dust of the millions of knitters who have held wool and needles since the beginning of sheep.”  (Knitter’s Almanac).  It isn’t an answer to every issue of intellectual property or livelihood for craftspeople and artists.  It doesn’t resolve every ethical conundrum, or even try–and these are vital issues that can’t be skirted around.  I like unvention, though, because it offers up the possibility of humility in the face of human ingenuity and the scale of time.


Finally, a little gratuitous street art from Melbourne, and an arbutus fruit.  Dear Commenters, this one was out of season on a tree in Melbourne while all the others were tiny and green (arbutus are in flower in my own neighbourhood)–and it was delicious!  Thankyou for your tips and encouragement!



Filed under Leaf prints, Natural dyeing

15 responses to “Things learned 2

  1. alex madden

    Really interesting post. I believe you could probably apply Elizabeth Zimmermann’s wise words to all of the Arts. We get so caught up in questions of ownership and originality to the point that it can inhibit creativity.


  2. Love. This. Post. Beautifully and thoughtfully written about topics that often start internet forum flame-wars. I relate to your memory issues and also to the occasional distress of the ‘whose invented this?’ dilemma. I will toss out there the connection with the great collective unconscious, as well. I sometimes cannot help but wonder what is passed down in our very dna that later rises up to be ‘unvented’. Nothing new under the sun, right?


    • Thanks so much… One of the things I like about India Flint’s approach is her acknowledgement of past traditions like cooking, easter egg decoration, food preservation. At the same time, I think what she does is a departure from those things. I like that aphorism about standing on the shoulders of giants!


  3. Thank you for all you beautiful words…poetry. Your sentiments are on point! I am thrilled to have learned some new names in the process of this post – the social exchange of knowledge that, you mentioned, technology has gifted us – and bring them to my students with your goodwill.


  4. You write like an angel.


  5. Thank you for writing these two posts. Very good food for thoughts.


  6. S.Desrochers

    thanks alot for sharing your thoughts. I am a woman of a few words and you text expressed it all….thanks


  7. Textilekid

    I have just happened upon your blog and am delighted to find another Melbournian addicted to natural dye. Your discussion of the issue of the source of ideas is close to my heart. I often suffer from “idea guilt”, in that I think I have worked something out for myself but find out later that I must have dragged it up from something I have seen or heard about. You have put.your finger on it and I am hoping I can look at it the way you do.Thank you for raising the subject.Textile kid


    • Welcome to the blog and thanks! I’m from Adelaide but came to your lovely city for a workshop recently–I have a work collaborator and family in Melbs and love to visit. Dyeing is a place in my life where I don’t feel a need to make big claims for the originality of what I do–and when I realise I probably didn’t think that up myself, or I am one in a long line of dyers to have made this discovery, I am glad not to have made any claims for myself! I have a day job in which claims to originality have a life of their own and where acknowledgement of the ideas that we borrow, use and repurpose in the creation of (marginally) new knowledge is a routine expectation. Completely original ideas are understood to be very unusual and all knowledge is seen as interrelated and necessarily so. These are practices I feel happy to use in relation to craft too.

      I don’t really think guilt helps. It usually just places a block on people’s preparedness to keep thinking about something freshly. Thanks so much for your comment!


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