Years ago, it started with a young llama. My husband surprised me with a charming cria for Christmas, to be our pack animal while hiking in the mountains. The llama needed to be shorn, so as not to over heat on the trail, and it didn’t take long before I had bags full of the stuff. A friend commented that I should learn to spin. People still do that? I asked.
Well, it turns out they do. I learned to spin, then knit, then weave. It gave me incredible pleasure to watch the fiber go through all the steps: shearing, washing, carding, spinning, plying, knitting. I did it all – from the llama’s back to a garment on my back. It was a whole, wholesome, living undertaking, so much different from walking into a department store and purchasing something made by machines in China. I was hooked.
I had been quilting since I was in middle school, but this making cloth thing was a revelation. Thus began the next level of my love-affair with articles made by the human hand. I dabbled in techniques from different countries, always drawn to folk art from an early age. I would show up at spinner’s guild weaving on the bow loom, and before long people started asking me to teach them the different techniques I had accumulated. My teaching style, because of my sequential science (biochemistry) background, turned out to be a good one they tell me – clear and ‘chunked-down’ into steps that made sense. Soon after, people started asking me to teach their children.
All this led to teaching weekly at the local home school co-operative, where I started actively researching other ethnic techniques in order to offer the students a well-rounded folk art experience. I loved learning how peoples from all over decorated the everyday things around them, how they made the useful things in their lives beautiful! But even more fun than the learning was the teaching. There is no greater thrill than watching a young student sitting at the spinning wheel, working for a couple of class-sessions at the new skill of pumping the treadle at the same time as drafting the fuzzy, wayward fibers of their roving, and actually see the light bulb go on when it ‘clicks’ for them and they go from being a normal suburban kid to a spinner – now connected to untold generations before them. This is why I have a passion for passing traditional skills on to next generation.
Something happens to a child at that point, when they acquire a skill so very basic to human development. I have seen the same thing in the basketry unit: when they master a skill this old, they are more grounded. They can do something real, something more than the latest ‘fad’.
This is the relevance of folk art in the modern, electronic era. It grounds us in the past, it connects us to the generations that came before us. It opens our eyes (and more importantly the young student‘s eyes) to the point of view of other peoples in other countries. Teaching them about another country's art opens up opportunities to start discussions on geography, history, sociology, etc. Working on an ethnic craft provides the time while young hands are busy creating, to talk about the whole spectrum of instructional opportunities.