Weaving the Year in These IslesEloïse Sentito
Nomadic handweaver Eloïse Sentito reviews her work in 2018: The ideas, the travels, the tensions, the weaves…
In a tiny boat in a beautiful bay of islands in the Outer Hebrides in summer I went fishing with some dear friends who go out specifically to catch their week’s supply of protein. I caught and killed my own fish for the first time, and I experienced that feeling for which henkeepers so loathe foxes: after some fruitless trips, some hours of disappointment, and some hours of seasickness and cold, on finding a shoal of very large mackerel, the brutal, maniacal drive to catch and kill as many as possible at one go. The predator making hay while the sun shines. And, though I like to support what I consider good food production (tiny scale, mixed, organic farming and wild hunting and gathering), the experience of this startlingly feral drive pushes me a little back towards vegetarianism – or should it be veganism, for the absolute stand that the planet perhaps needs a critical mass of us to take now in order to avoid or mitigate climate breakdown?
I’ve been reading Monbiot a lot, and I’ve been homehunting in sheepwrecked landscapes historically cleared, often violently, of people so as to make way for the wool on which we built our empire and on which my livelihood now depends. Ouch. Tiny, scattered, determined, island community members cling to each other wilfully and creatively – crofters, artists and fisherfolk in remote, difficult, treeless terrain. In the Hebrides there is less counter culture, but perhaps less need for it, as these people are still well aware of the essential importance of each other, of land, and of craft. However, holiday home-owning in the Outer Isles has contributed to the largest price spike anywhere in the UK in the last two years, and all that would be vaguely within my reach is in too poor a state for my financiers to consider. Also, after the Caribbean weather vanishes in July and galesome, wet, autumn sets in, I realise for the first time in my life that I do not want to live alone far from the nearest town, especially where the landscape is so inhospitable now to all but grazers, and the winter days so short.
This is very much a revelation: I was brought up on a shoestring but renting in beautiful places was always prioritised, was what I knew and loved and what I always sought for myself too, even in solitude, and always envisaged for myself forever. But renting feels exploitative to me, and no longer a happy housing solution. And buying rurally is unaffordable for most of us. And then this change of heart: Stornoway’s welcome, with its arts centre, lively pubs, and extensive woodlands by the harbour and town centre, altered my path quite radically. I’ve come to want what most people want: the daily dog walks in the trees, with the shops, market, music and social life also within walking distance.
Sadness and anger for centuries of wealth-concentrating policy that has made the English countryside (especially) largely inaccessible to the many, and pretty lonely to the few, with communities significantly eroded. The Land Workers’ Alliance, Simon Fairlie et al continue to fight for the rights of young, alternative farmers to make their sustainable projects feasible by being able to live on the land they work. So many of them are still thwarted even in their agricultural pursuits by conservative planning laws, and buying land in my native England would certainly not solve my own housing problem. (Although, amazingly, the more philanthropic Scottish government and Crofting Commission actually pay people to take on land and build, personally I do not feel equipped to face this alone. The One Planet Development project in Wales is even more farsighted – truly radical and visionary – for those of you with more strength and resources than I.)
So, a lover of space, wilderness, silence, dark skies and rewilding, my views shift: whereas my first trip to Ireland saw me dismayed at the scatter of bungalows throughout much of the countryside and the lack of wild between them, the socialist in me is glad now that more people have access to land and rural life. For disconnect with land is surely the root of all of society’s ills…
I’m currently reading Paul Mason on postcapitalism, radically foreign yet resonant: is the urbanite so disenfranchised from the land that land will soon no longer be one of the three pillars of economics (along with labour and capital)? He seems to be positing that these three may be largely outcompeted by a knowledge economy via info-tech, and that these successors are more equally distributable among all the networked individuals of the world, the order of which he sees as undergoing an overarching battle between complex network and oppressive hierarchy. Thus he heralds the emergence of non-enforced communism as originally envisaged by Marx, and I am forced to question whether my own dreams of land ownership root nomadic me, of all people, in an old, oppressive order.
But how to mend the psycho-social and cultural disconnect compounded by capitalist economics and surely not healed by this new route yet further divergent from land? Infrastuctural collapse brought on by economic crash and climate breakdown will surely throw survivors back into whatever remains of fields and woods. Personally, professionally and politically I gravitate towards the lowest tech, land-based survivalism, but ideologically I cannot ignore the democratising and egalitarian potential of the high-tech – an incoming wave I’ve welcomed, jubilant, in both education and politics, to name just two examples, as the complex chaos of social media glistens its possibility for overthrowing the archaic, hierarchical paradigms.
Mason suggests that a gift-like economy (though so far he uses other terms) of infinitely and freely replicable info-goods enabled by networked media will elude profiteering and supercede the markets. As he explains it, it sounds like another route away from the monopolising feudalism of debt-money. I wonder how the knowledge producers will put bread on their tables (and most people in the arts already know how that feels) – but I’m sure that subsequent chapters will examine this satisfactorily. (It’s great writing, and great politics; do follow him.)
Back to my own profession: a London designer of African origin has just approached me for some chunky, earthen cloth handwoven in native Celtic wool for his menswear apparel. We are both excited at this opportunity to explicitly connect fashion to land via craft, and the diverse ecology of our possible collaboration.
So those are the ideas, and here are the weavings through the year.
January. I started the year in Devon, and wove some rustic cloth à propos of the silver-grey bark of wintry trees in the woodlands where I walked Murphy. Some of the wool was my favourite Scottish island tweed that lent subtle but startling multicolour to the natural and/or undyed greys and rabbits. The year has turned and two of these three scarves have sold. The softest, plainest, wintriest one remains, gentled by a little Alpaca.
February. Van life means you have to keep moving whether you want to or not, since it is easy to outstay your welcome, even where there is one. I went to Brittany and spent time with both mor and koat – sea and forest. Here is a soft, wintry snug pictured on a boulder in woodlands of the Armorique National Park, Finistère.
March. Still in Brittany, I resumed the seascape weavings. Huge, expansive beaches offered chilly, windfraught photoshoots in which I had to pin weavings to the sand with handy flotsam. I notice how the Atlantic coast, jewelled with the odd white beach all down, changes gradually from the Western Isles of Scotland, with its rocky moor and bog and mountains on gneiss; the Inner Hebrides, Argyll and Bute, gentler and prettier, with a little dogged ancient oak forest even on the Western seabord; Wales with its moorlandy cliffs like the granite tumbles of North Devon and North Cornwall; South West Cornwall, more wooded, with softer moorlandy headlands and the beginnings of the rose granite; Brittany with these moorlandy headlands, rose granite and the beginnings of the mediterranean pines that prevail down the French Atlantic and all the way to Galicia. I haven’t seen the Portuguese coast, and I wonder…
April. The sun came out hot in Brittany, but I returned to Devon. Thinking about how best to use the most local, least processed wool, I began weaving rugs. The most local, least processed (undyed) wool wove itself into the most successful of all those made so far. Telling me something, perhaps.
May. I began to gather together for a trip back to my first landing place after going on the road: the Isle of Lewis. They were having a heatwave. Drought made the bog less colourful – I particularly missed the red sphagnum moss – but the sea more inviting. Weaving the colours into rugs was heady, though the technicalities proved frustrating.
June. When the weather broke in the Outer Hebrides, storms brought in heaps of orangey rusty red, purple and black bladderwrack; rocks black with lichen reflected steel and white skies. This little slipway was all but reclaimed – the beautiful romance of unobstrusive workmanship that enhances a wildy landscape. The colours for this rug absorbed me totally, and are a combination that stays with me still.
July. In the height of summer on the Isle of Lewis, the rare meadows behind the sand dunes of the whitest sands burst into bloom. The acid soils are fertilised by windblown lime to create the green, cerise, yellow, blue, purple and white machair effect unique to such parts of Scotland and Ireland. I camped in them, walked in them and wove in them to my heart’s delight.
August. Horizontal rains ripped the Outer Isles and drove through every crack not only in my old van but also in my friends’ very new van. I had remembered that the Hebridean dampness was less bothersome than the Devon dampness I was brought up with, because in the islands, in between downpours, galesome winds at least blow in through the cracks and help dry things out. This summer though, the rain barely stopped and the wind just forced the water in. I kept my recent memory alive though of rusty red weed, rusty red sails, rusty iron rings and the skies reflecting their deep blue into the Atlantic, and wove one of my best shawls to date. I recently packed it up to send to Oregon, where I’ve heard that their rugged coast may be as characterful – and possibly a little bit as Celtic – as ours.
September. Still in the Outer Hebrides but after eight months of unusually slow trade and a few months of dead-worried publicity drive, a couple of magazine features came together. One, by Carol Ann Strange, will depict my travelling craft life, to come out in Coast magazine I’m-not-sure-when. The other, by Kate Stuart in No Serial Number magazine this autumn, draws the threads of the poetry and the politics together in an invitation to the Green Cloth Collective – a group for environmentalist craftspeople who see their makership as an act of resistance.
October. I had hoped to find suitable bricks and mortar in Stornoway by winter. However, four months’ relentless searching revealed only wrecks within my reach. But that port town where my heart sings; that little harbour where the Drascombe is moored; and that little slipway where I walked Murph every day remained alive in my mind, and the first of my winter smalls were this harbour snug, harbour scarf and harbour cowls. (The scarf sold straight away, but the others are still in my shop as I type – don’t delay!)
November. Back in Devon again, I watch the wooded hillside opposite go through its zenith and then fall wintry. There are regal oaks, scrubby gorse and some other native planted saplings as a piece of this prime but tiring agricultural land is being allowed deliberately to rewild. Most noticeable are the swathes of silver birch with their platinum trunks and red-purple brush. Some of my favourite spots in the Highlands, islands and Ireland are characterised by birch.
December. Still static in Devon, flat out trying to make my most seasonal of crafts earn me a year’s income in what may, in terms of sales, only be a three month year. (I’ve been pleasantly surprised before at the length of my season, but this year has been different, and very stressful due to slow trade Jan-Aug.)
I add some new postcards to a large reprint, and get some, ahem, very swanky cards printed on recycled cotton. I squeeze out a few more weavings, though decide to concentrate on selling more than making in the peak of this peak season. I invest in some Facebook advertising (corporate, boo!) which increases my traffic by orders of magnitude, and have a consultation with a nice Dub at Facebook Ireland’s HQ about targeting my advertising. I also revamp my shop with a new, high speed photographic style: I figure that you may wish to see my weavings worn in order to imagine what they might look like on you, and not just what they look like in the landscape! Sales have been good in the final months of 2018 thank goodness, for I was considering contingency plans – as we must.
And so we wish you a Merry Christmas, Murphy and I, and thank you for your support, and look forward to ‘seeing’ you in the New Year.
Items featured in this article:
Rustic scarf for sale
Soft seascape cowl for sale
Snug for sale
Native breeds rug for sale
Bladderwrack wall hanging for sale
Machair rug for sale
Harbour cowls for sale
Bladderwrack rug for sale
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