Category Archives: Basketry

Needle books

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A while back, I managed to find second hand woolen blankets, many of which were partly felted and sold for the warmth of dogs.  I am in favour of the warmth of dogs, but was delighted to take some home.  A couple have gone to the dye table where they insulate dye vats (today there is an indigo vat wrapped up in wool out there in the chilly morning).  This one, though, was a perfectly good blanket, if a little threadbare and dating back at least to the 1960s.  I can’t fit a whole blanket in any of my dye pots, so I had to take scissors to it in order to dye it, and this seems to have been a high barrier to clear.  Clear it, I now have.

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This piece dyed with E Cinerea leaves, (and a little of something else I don’t remember) has become needle books.  I left the edge stitching in position because I like it, then added my own blanket stitches in plant dyed threads. The string is hand twined silk fabric dyed with madder root.  I learned string making from Basketry SA and applying it to fabric rather than leaves from India Flint. She recently posted a video of stringmaking 101 here.  I know someone will ask, and the video is beautiful: it manages to convey the peacefulness of stringmaking somehow.

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One went to my mother.  She is on her way north for some months of warmth and adventure with my Dad (in Australia we call people such as my folks ‘grey nomads’). When they were over for dinner last week, Mum said she would like to take a project.

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She liked one of the projects I have underway and she soon had a version for herself!  I have a little stack of tins I have been saving to make mending kits.  She chose one, chose a needle book, and then I gifted her an indigo dyed bag to stitch on and some embroidery thread to stitch with, and some needles.  I hope she uses her little kit, but even if it was a passing whim, she will enjoy having it with her.  I’ll be keeping her company in some small way. Another needle book and mending kit went to my daughter when she was passing through recently and turned out not to have amending kit (!!)  The other needle books are destined for mending kits.  Their time is sure to come.

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Filed under Basketry, Leaf prints, Natural dyeing, Sewing

String in Brisbane

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I went to Brisbane for work late last year, and Brisbane is really different to Adelaide.  It’s a tropical place.  On day one I found this pineapple just growing alongside the car park of the place where I was staying!  Public gardens in Brisbane are full of plants that require special treatment to grow in a pot in temperate Adelaide, or grow to only a fraction of the size.

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Strap-leafed plants grow everywhere you look.  Which is good, because I have taken up making string as part of a process for being in a place and thinking about its people and laws; more to the point, considering my obligations under Indigenous laws.  I do this at home, but I also do it when I travel. So I harvested dead leaves from various plants, left them soaking in the hand  basin while I was out, and had quiet contemplative evenings twining string.

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I also managed to visit the Gallery of Modern Art, and it was celebrating a big birthday.  This is one of the works commissioned for it, now located just beside the entrance.  It is by Judy Watson (Waanyi people, 2016) ‘tow row’.

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String was a theme (for me) as I wandered through the gallery.  This is a small part of Lena Kurriniya’s ‘feathered bush string’ (Kunjunwinku people, 2002). The string itself is made from Kurrajong inner bark, with bustard feathers.

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This exquisite mat was very nearly black and hard to capture in the light.  Maraana Wamarasi (Fiji, 2016) ‘Ibe Nauri’ (round mat).

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I loved the way the centre had been constructed.

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Richard Gandhuwuy Garrawurra (Liya Gawumirr people) ‘Waistband’ (1999).

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This string is made of bark fibre, and the entire work also uses cotton thread, human hair, feathers, native beeswax and natural pigments.

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This next work drew me back to ‘tow row’.  Its creator is Dorothy Bienanwangu Dullman (Kunjunwinku/Dangbon people) ‘Wollobi’ (standing fish net) (2007).  It is made from knotted sand palm leaf string and wooden struts rather than metal, but gives a strong sense of what is being referenced in the sculpture pictured above.

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I was utterly enchanted by ‘from here to ear’ (v. 13) 2010 by Celeste Boursier-Mougenot (b. France).

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This was an installation taking up a huge room and a soundscape driven by dozens of finches, making their own sounds but also triggering sounds by landing on parts of the installation. I had a lot of time on my own in the room watching the finches and surrounded by sound as they flew, ate, and nested in little baskets. Delightful!

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Spinning day lily leaves into string

2016-07-23 21.07.22

I was looking for something else in my room the other day when I saw this home made seed envelope and wondered what was in it.  Imagine my surprise when I found shells and pieces of shell all with holes in them.  Just the kind of thing I wanted to spin onto string.  It quite revived my interest in spinning string on my spinning wheel.

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I put day lily leaves on to soak this time, the whole of the crop of spent leaves from my day lily for the year. Then  the spinning began.

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This time, I decided I wouldn’t ply. I liked my iris leaf string better before it was plied.  I also decided not to clip all the ends.  They are softer and less numerous and I decided I quite like them this time!

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Well. That’s one of my show entries sorted.  And a wild, strange looking thing it is. Now for the others!  I have some effort to put in and a bit of focus is going to be required if I am to submit them all…

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Spinning iris leaves into yarn

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Sometimes an idea just comes to me with such force that I have to try it out.  I had been wondering whether to enter the Royal Show and thought perhaps not, since time has been especially tight and I didn’t have any really great ideas.  Then an idea came to me.  Could I spin string from leaves on the wheel?  And spin shells onto it? I had to try it out (no shells to hand this moment, which is a small hitch)…

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These iris plants came originally from the trading table at my Guild.  I recognised them immediately because there are some just like these growing in a street near ours that I walk along often.  I believe they may be Algerian Iris, (Iris unguicularis), drought tolerant iris from ‘Algeria and Tunisia but also … Greece, Crete, Rhodes, Turkey, Syria and Lebanon.’ This would explain why they are doing well here, though those that were not watered over summer all died. Before I planted them, I trimmed off the leaves and saved them.  Almost a feed sack full of them.  How can you know when such a thing might come in handy? Ahem.

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I weighed and soaked them in water in preparation. Weighed, because a show entry has to be a certain weight–I made sure I had much more than required.

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I hand twisted a sample just to check concept.  So far so good.  Much more plausible than daylily leaves, which I had decided against.

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And then, on with the apron, leaves in a damp tea towel, leaves divided into narrow strips, and the challenge of working out how to join one strip to the next began.  The short answer is: insert each new strip of leaf at almost 90 degrees to the forming single, make sure it has been twisted between at least two other strips, and then move on.

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Before long, I had some extremely ugly, spiny looking string forming.

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It took me several evenings to have two bobbins of this, and then to ply.  Before plying I soaked my bobbins, singles and all, in water to make them pliable.  When I transferred the ‘yarn’ onto the niddy noddy, it was soooo spiny.  I took scissors to trimming off the ends.   For an hour or two.

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The finished yarn is decidedly less good than hand twined string, both in looks, texture, and strength, but I can’t imagine how long making this much string by hand would have taken.  So… now I have done it, and I know I can do it.  But I am not sure it was worth doing!  I am still thinking over whether more practice would (or course) improve the outcome, or this was just one of those things you do once and then set aside permanently…

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Ngarrindjeri Basket Weaving Retreat 2

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On the second day of the retreat, we went on a field trip. We went to collect ‘the rushes’, a native sedge that grows in wet areas.  Each–leaf?– is cylindrical and perfectly shaped to be used for basketry.  Here is the place where we gathered rushes for weaving (they will be used in the future, while we wove with rushes gathered and dried previously).

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The sedge in question has a three-pointed tip, and tiny sedge plants begin to grow at the end of each rush until they weigh it down to ground level where they can take root.  Plants are so extraordinary!  We learned about how Ngarrindjeri gather/ed the rushes and encourage/d them to thrive and how colonisation and the weeds and land practices that came in its wake have affected their availability.  It was a privilege to hear stories of people’s lives and families, as well as receive instruction from those who know. The retreat had begun with a brief history of the wider picture of suffering, family dispersal and cultural disclocation wrought by colonisation in this specific part of the country, as well as the present and future for Ngarrindjeri people, who are actively involved in revegetation and cultural renewal.

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On the way back we stopped at Meningie, looking out over the Murray River. Different kinds of rushes grow here and there is a set of interpretive signs about Ngarrindjeri history, culture and futures, in which the weaving plays a central part.

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From Meningie we went back to Camp Coorong and returned to our weaving. I learned three different starts for a basket (oval, round and square), as well as the main weaving stitch and how to create handles, finish off, and shape a basket.  We made some small pieces to be part of a larger collaborative piece. That might be my square start in front.

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There were a lot of experienced weavers at the retreat from different traditions as well as some like me with little experience.  There were Indigenous women there from many generations and from different places.  Some women had come a long way to have the privilege of learning from the Ngarrindjeri aunties. And they were fabulous, patient instructors.  As always, it was a treat to be a learner. But the straightforward and understated, but completely direct way Auntie Noreen patiently corrected me and set me on my way was a special treasure in the way of teaching.

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There were plenty of interesting conversations and plenty of different perspectives on culture, tradition, basketry and life.  And spectacular food as well! I made a somewhat misshapen basket, but it is certainly a basket.  I also made a somewhat more skilful disc–I love the way when you are starting to learn you can see your skills leap forward!  On the final day I put it down before lunch and never saw it again.  I assume it accidentally went to another home, but happily, with someone who can finish it.

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A lot of people grow the sedges for weaving, and I have come home with some in pots ready to plant and some more just beginning. Here they are sitting in water to grow roots (my bathroom is a strange but wonderful place, evidently).

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I have examined my neighbourhood and discovered one patch of these sedges and many more patches of a different sedge that the  weaving book says is also used (though less desired) for the weaving. I will research whether my suburb is a suitable place to plant more or whether these will go into the garden rather than the neighbourhood. Meanwhile, sedges are drying in the lounge room…

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Ngarrindjeri Basket Weaving Retreat 1

Recently I went to Camp Coorong for a weekend of learning Ngarrindjeri  basket weaving techniques with some of the Ngarrindjeri aunties who are keeping this tradition vigorous and sharing it among their own communities and further afield.  On the first morning of the retreat, many of us went for an early morning walk in Bonney Reserve, a beautiful scrubland adjoining the Coorong.

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We walked through several different plant communities, including some marshy areas where sundews were thriving.  These insectivorous plants never cease to fascinate and delight me. Look at those jewel-like beads of nectar, no doubt calling out to passing insects like a siren hailing a passing sailor…

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These sundews had managed to grow right beside a plausible food source (that hole looks like an ant nest to me!)

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The tiny flowers of the scrub were everywhere.  Birds were calling across the treetops and in the undergrowth.

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These are correas.

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I believe this is a flame heath.  In full flower at midwinter, when the rain is falling.

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Some of the eucalypts were in bud but this one was already flowering.

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Someone is pupating in here, I suspect!

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Then, we went back to Camp Coorong for a day of further inspiration and instruction.  This is a part view of the table of special treasures people brought with them to speak about with other weavers.

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So much string

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Part of our holiday was spent staying with a long standing and treasured friend in a beachside suburb of Sydney.  It was a wonderful time but also an unseasonably cold, wet and windy one, so there was more walking than swimming and more knitting time than I anticipated.  The plants along that coast are just perfect for basketry.  Or in my case, string making.  Here, dianellas growing right by the sea.

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Here, a garden that could not have been planned with more care if landscaped by basket weavers.  For the first time ever, I made string from pandanus leaves, while a bunch of us did a long cliff top walk.  Just glorious! I gave it to one of our lovely companions immediately she commented on it.  First she tried it as a necklace, and then she settled on adding it to her rather gorgeous hat.  Those orange parts are the base of the leaf… she liked them, and clearly they fit with her hat’s colour scheme

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I also made string with cordylines from here and there, picked up on walks, beginning when we were on the Mornington peninsula staying in a place with immensely long leaved cordyline.  I tried twining pieces of shell and coral picked up on the beach into the string (successfully!  I will do that again)… I taught someone else to make string.  I gave string away.  I left string in people’s homes to be found later.  I made string while sitting, chatting and walking.  I came home festooned with string.

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Then one night after we arrived home I was playing guitar and the string was very much in the way.  So I gave away all the looser string on my wrist and now I have just this left as a holiday memento.

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Common Threads: Weaving Community Through Collaborative Eco-Art

Some time ago, I discovered the wonderful blog of artist Sharon Kallis.  I think it was one of those moments of serendipity that the world wide web enables so marvellously–she stopped by this blog having found a post about processing nettle fibre (unsuccessfully, I might add) and left a trace of some sort–like a kind comment–and I wondered what she was writing about and went to find out.

Her blog is a trove of inspiring writing and action. She is part of a multitude of projects I find really exciting–when I first found her blog, she was using basketry techniques with weedy species to control erosion, raise consciousness about weeds, and build community.  Since then, she has been involved in community gardening projects, including communally growing and processing flax to make linen.  She has been working with parks using what would otherwise be waste vegetation or prunings for basketry, dyeing, sculpture and other community projects.  She is spreading awareness about bees and building bee habitats in the suburbs.  And so on.  Many of these projects have educational, celebratory, musical and film aspects that make them all the richer and more exciting.

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Imagine my delight when I realised that she was writing a book!  I pre-ordered Common Threads (New Society Publishers, 2014) and was so utterly delighted by it I remember wondering if it was possible I could quit my life-eating (though in many respects wonderful) day job and take up community art instead. Somehow months have passed without my writing a review.  But here it is at last.  The book is rich in sources of inspiration, full of ideas, imagination, interviews with other community and eco-artists whose work inspires and informs.  It is divided into three sections: Places, People and Plants.

In Places, Sharon writes about the imperative to use what is local, including what is invasive and weedy in a local landscape.  In relation to weeds, her approach centres on problem solving from the troublesome features of invasive species toward using them as resources for sustainability.  The projects featured engage members of the community in learning about invasive species as well as learning basketry and stitching techniques to work with plants.  She writes about building change with other members of the community, introducing the concept of ‘backsourcing’: ‘the process of re-claiming what we outsourced when factories took over the production of goods to satisfy the general needs of a developed country’s population.’  Her case studies include the Means of Production Garden, a community garden in which artists grow the plants needed for their art practices; and the Aberthau project in which people grew their own flax in community gardens and household plots and then learned to process it into fibre, thread and eventually, garments.

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The People section deals with strategies and processes for building community through engagement with the plant world and the process of growing, harvesting, making and celebrating the seasons.

The final section on Plants provides a wealth of practical information for working with invasive species (many are recognisable in Australia even though Sharon is working in Canada).  It then moves on to techniques for basic basketry, netting and string making.  The basics of plant dyeing are covered, and the section concludes with the logistics of managing green waste as a source for community projects, accessing funding and partnering with public parks.  I am in awe of the reach of this book–all the way from how to turn leaves into string through to how to organise large scale projects utilising the green waste from parks and managing relationships between artists and community workers and public sector authorities.

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Each section of the book includes interviews with other artists involved in organising the featured community art projects.  I loved these insights into the how and why of these projects.  I have my own sense of why these projects might be valuable and interesting, but inevitably other people’s sense of the importance of the local, the environment, and making are diverse and wonderful. I found lots of resonance with ideas and processes that I use in my own small way—but such a profound sense of building community and of building up strategies for change and engagement made vivid and visible.

As the chapters unfold, a critique of consumption and materialism builds up.  A sense of the value of all that is impermanent and biodegradable in the face of a society that is structured to require and encourage consumption and which creates disposable packaging that can last for centuries develops.  And a sense of what might be done to address these questions opens up.

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More lessons from string

You don’t need as much as you think. A message that I can never hear too often as a first worlder.  Only a few leaves will make many metres of string if you twine it right!

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What you might need is all around you.  This is dianella, which we are growing, and so is the council.  Eventually dead leaves come away from the base and even these make decent string!

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If you have the right leaf, and you use a pin or needle, you can get a nice, fine strip with which to make nice, fine string.  Just insert needle into leaf and pull it toward one end of the leaf or the other! I learned this method when I did introductory basketry, but had clean forgotten until just recently.  I’ve found with cordyline that keeping everything really wet helps a good deal.  Here it is stripped into fine lengths and sitting in a container of water suitable for indoor string making.

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Tough fibres are more resilient and make a more robust string, but pliable fibres are much more pleasurable to work and not so poky to wear (if you’re wearing string this season).  Cordyline and dianella have been my more recent experiments, and they make very resilient and strong string.  But it never gets as smooth as daylily, which is lovely and pliable when damp and smooth and comfortable to wear when dry.

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Imperfection is acceptable more often than you might think.  Basketry manuals offer excellent advice about how to choose and prepare plant fibres for optimal use in basketry and cordage but you can use non optimal fibres and less than optimal preparation and still make something that will please you and that might be more than adequate for use or need.  Here you can see the cordylines I have most recently tried making string from.  They are standing in a bed alongside the footpath outside a residential facility for frail elderly folk in my suburb.  Under the live red leaves, dead brown leaves are gradually withering and eventually falling to the ground.  Taking a few of the dead leaves is unlikely to worry anyone.  In fact, I’ve collected fallen leaves for mulch from the footpath outside this place and been thanked by the residents and applauded for my public spiritedness (little do they know!)  If leaves have been out in the sun, wind and weather for too long they will become brittle and degraded, but these leaves are so tough they have been more than adequate for use, and I have made a lot more string since I realised (with some help from Roz Hawker and some experiments with leaves wet from rain in my own garden) that much less preparation and care might work fine for at least some applications.

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The structure of leaves is every bit as intricate and individual and interesting as I had always suspected from looking at leaves but not trying to work out how to use the fibres in them.

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There are companions on the road.  There are always companions.  Helle Jorgensen; Patten project; Weaving Magic and clearly many Indigenous traditions.  Thanks to kind readers who have pointed me in the direction of some of these lovely makers.

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These galahs (can you see them?) kept me company making lemongrass string and some rosellas watched over me and dropped little bits of tree on me while I made green lomandra leaf string and lemongrass string.

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There and the lessons of string for the moment!

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What making string has taught me… so far

This decision I have made to use string making as a way to contemplate connection to the earth and plants, a way to think about Indigenous law… is teaching me a lot.  Not all of it as expected.  Which is the way learning goes, when it goes well!  I am noticing potential string-plants in the neighbourhood a lot.  And as I do that, noticing so much more. 2015-05-12 14.11.16

I have been learning some more about the supposed divide between public and private.  It turns out that if I take up my damp leaves and it is light, and so I think perhaps I’ll go and commune with a tree (or try to imagine what communing with a tree would involve)–or even just stand beneath it in admiration and enjoy the birdsong–I can just about never manage this alone and without comment.

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If I take my wet leaves up the street and round the corner to check on the latest little saltbush plantings, I end up listening to one of my neighbours who spends a lot of time on the street himself.  I hope it helps him to talk, because in all honesty, it isn’t that relaxing to listen to him.  But the string does help me and he doesn’t notice it.

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Other people do notice it.   People do not expect you to do anything when you are out in the neighbourhood other than walk, or walk your dog.  Knitting while walking is a spectacularly attention grabbing thing to do.  I have known this for years, I admit.

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So is gleaning (picking up fallen bark, leaves or spent flowers).  So is weeding.  So is planting.  So is picking up litter.  Walking a dog is fine, but walking a wheelbarrow stands out from the crowd.  I now discover that fidgeting with strips of leaf in the street is also worthy of comment.  A friend who had been to Central America once said to me that I was the only white woman she had ever met whose hands were never still.  I took it as a compliment.  I am not sure why being passive is a desirable thing.  Rest, I can understand.  Sometimes stillness, too, is desirable and necessary.  But not all the time.  I think making and gathering and tending the commons, even in the suburbs, is much more fulfilling.

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I am also learning about the uses of plants.  I hadn’t realised that this would be such a simple way to assess the qualities of a leaf.  I thought this plant looked like a cordyline (a plant known to basketry and a member of the family whose leaves I happily turned into string at Tin Can Bay), and so I gleaned a single dead leaf.  It is extremely tough.  Even after 24 hours of soaking, when I could split it with my nail and pull it apart along the length of the leaf, it felt dry and tough and hard to twine.  But the fibres were exceedingly tough and there was no fragility with twisting.  This made me think that this plant would make a great stitching medium.  You could thread a strip through a needle and use this to stitch.

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This plant had tough leaves that I soaked and split.  I managed to create string with it but it felt unpleasant–simultaneously slightly sticky and as if the fibres had a square profile–and I strongly disliked the smell–which made me wonder whether long term skin contact was a good idea.  From now on, it is safe from me. But the string was… stretchy!

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I took this photo over the top of a tall fence, as this plant is tree sized–taller than I am.  I haven’t tried it out yet but if it is useful–it has many dried and dead leaves falling off onto the footpath.  Gleaning goodness. I have also been learning about my own skill levels… as wearing the string means I can see which fibres break first and where the weak points in my work are,  and I can see the different thicknesses and finenesses of string I am able to make, too.  The learning continues…

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