Byzantine Linen Bag

The Byzantine Bag

These bags had a very humble inspiration – the desire to upcycle a linen bag that was originally the packaging for some linen sheets. I loved the simplicity of the bag and created some slender Forager handles for it a number of years ago from the half-inch stock I usually use for closures and shawl cuffs.

Here is the contact sheets of some film Bruce shot of me with this bag on the beach at the Outer Banks a few years ago. My intention in this series was to show the bag handles, as well as the Women’s Wealth shawl cuff, hence the appearance of a piece of knitwear in the last three frames of the roll.

Here are a couple of color images from the same photoshoot on the beach after I put the shawl on. You can see the Women’s Wealth cuff on the shawl and another one on my wrist.

Not everyone has a linen bag in which linen sheets were sold, however, and as much as I like the linen sheet bag, it is very deep and long. I wanted something a bit smaller in scale and with some ornamentation. I made two bags over several years and this blog post offers a description of how I made them. A downloadable pdf of the pattern for the Byzantium motif – in a full-size version that requires some taping and a scaled-down version that can be printed on a single sheet of paper – is available for purchase (only $2) on my website. Once you print it and cut it out, you can then trace it onto your fabric to inform a range of surface embellishment techniques, such as applique, chain stitch embroidery, kantha stitching, painting, batik, or something else.

Backstitched Natural Linen – 12 inches wide by 18 inches tall with a curved bag-bottom profile.

To create the basic bag body for the backstitched natural linen bag, I plotted my dimensions on the fabric and established the curve in the bag bottom by cutting a piece of paper on the fold until I got the shape right. Then I used the piece of paper as a pattern to transfer the curve to my fabric.

I hand-sewed the front and back faces together using a double-strand of cotton/poly craft sewing thread (Dual Duty Plus Button & Craft by Coats and Clarks is what I used but I’m looking for something that comes in larger quantities on a paper or wooden spool instead of plastic). Because this seam creates the bag bottom, it has to be robust so I made a French seam that I then stitched down flat, meaning the seam has been sewn three times. I did a wide hem at the bag opening. I stabilized the holes I made for the screws, that secured the handle, with a buttonhole stitch but you could also set a metal eyelet if you wanted to reduce the amount of handwork.

Once I completed the bag, I used a cutout of the Byzantium motif to trace the design onto the bag body, tracing three shapes total in such a way that they wrap around the side seams for a more dynamic look. For the natural linen, I chose just to embroider the outline of the motif using a backstitch in a fingering weight superwash yarn (Meridian) from Seven Sisters Arts. The color is a fascinating yellow-grey called Vireo. I could also have chosen to fill in the Byzantium motif with chain stitch, for example, or even fully cover the bag body with embroidery for a carpet bag vibe and an incredibly strong fabric. In the past, I have embroidered bags after sewing them up, covering the seams completely with embroidery and creating a continuous, seamless fabric. It takes a long time. But it also lasts for a long time. I chose not to line my linen bag because I wanted an incredibly lightweight tote. To create more body, you could easily line this bag with unbleached muslin or even the same fabric. This would give you an opportunity to introduce a pocket to the interior.

Kantha Embroidered Black Linen – 14 inches wide by 17 inches tall with a squared-off bag-bottom

Like the Backstitched bag, the Kantha bag was constructed first, before I did any embroidery. For this bag, I created a flat bag bottom in the style of a grocery bag to give the bag a boxier shape. Once I sewed it up, I traced my Byzantium motif and then began my Kantha stitching, stitching over the side seams, using a long darner needle and fingering-weight (Meridian) yarn dyed by Seven Sisters Arts using a light and a dark grey and an indigo. Though the Kantha stitching does not add much weight or bulk, by stitching over the seams it increases the strength of the fabric quite a bit.

At its simplest, Kantha stitching represents a series of parallel lines of running stitch, used historically in Bangladesh and the eastern part of India to marry layers of fabric together in order to extend the useful life of textiles. These lines of running stitch were functional more than ornamental and the technique creates interesting effects on printed fabrics in particular as the color of the thread can appear iridescent in relation to the colors in the fabric itself. That is not how I used running stitch in this instance.

My first lines of stitching established the outlines of the Byzantium motif. My subsequent lines of stitching followed the same contours. As in traditional Kantha, I used parallel lines of stitches. But my lines were curved rather than straight. I worked on all the shapes at once, building up layers of stitching lines around each motif at roughly the same rate. As you can see, I changed thread color in different parts of the interior of the shape and outside the shape.

As I built up parallel lines of stitches around my Byzantium motifs, my stitching lines started to bump up against each other. Once that happened, the negative space around the motifs began to be my focus rather than the positive contours of the shape. In general, my stitching was responsive and improvisational. I wanted to have a sense of flow in the direction of the stitching lines but not give myself any rigid requirements. The Byzantium motifs’ edges and the bag opening were my constraints. If I were to stitch another Kantha bag, even with the shapes traced in the same locations, the stitching would be different insofar as my way of responding to the lines of stitching bumping up against each other and the contours of the bag opening would be different and situational. Though I could plan my response ahead of time, I find it more interesting to make decisions as I go along. No patience is required while making it up because it never gets boring.

Like the Backstitched Bag, this bag could easily be lined with the same or another lightweight fabric. So far I have not lined mine.

The Banci in Ababi and Nengah’s Disgust

Sarong Series Number 4: More thoughts on gender and sarongs

There was to be a Joged dance performance in Ababi, the village where I lived from 1998 until 2000 to do research for a PhD in Cultural Anthropology (not Archeology; I studied contemporary ideas about the body and cosmology. I didn’t dig things up).[1] The Joged troupe arrived in a truck and the members started to climb down. We were standing in front of our gate (me, Julian – who was 3ish at the time – and Luh, the Balinese woman who lived with me during my fieldwork to help with household work and childcare) watching the troupe as other people from the village started to assemble and stand on the edges of the road to watch. Nengah, who was deaf, arrived and stood near me. People had called her Kolok when I first moved to the village. Kolok means something along the lines of deaf mute. I didn’t want to use the word Kolok to refer to my neighbor. So I asked people I knew from the village about her birth order.[2] First born is Wayan, Gede, or Putu.  Second born is Kadek, Made or Nengah, which means middle. Third born is Komang or Nyoman. Forth is Ketut. If there is a fifth child you start over at Wayan. Kolok was the second born. I started to call her Nengah. Other people I knew also started calling her Nengah after that.

A local sign language had developed in the village to communicate with Nengah. I am not sure who developed the signs in use. I never asked how that came about, though now I wish I had. The structure of the signs loosely followed the logic of Balinese or Indonesian in terms of having sweeping gestures as time-markers to indicate when things occur(ed). In spoken Balinese and Indonesian, there is no verb tense. Instead there are words for a long time ago, yesterday, a short time ago, earlier today, just now, right now, later, tomorrow, sometime in the future. With Nengah, smaller or larger gestures in front of the self or behind the self indicated this notion of time. A hand cupped under the breast meant mother. A finger pointing down at the crotch meant man. I didn’t learn all of the signs people used but I never felt like I had trouble communicating with Nengah.

On the day the Joged came to the village and the troupe climbed down from the truck – dancers, musicians, the people doing the dancers’ hair, makeup, and costumes – Nengah identified a man in the group and frowned. She pointed to him then held her hand up, fingers spread, and shook it, a bit like jazz-hands. This gesture means ‘no’ and you use it to signal rejection from a distance or while you are walking away. She did this again, adding a dismissive gesture and vocalizing, making sounds without opening her mouth. Those sounds make me wonder, now, if the impulse to speak is inextricably part of us to the point that the will to communicate, even when it’s with signs, elicits the production of sounds. She indicated her sarong, pointed to his sarong, expressed disgust, waved her hand. I realized he had wrapped his sarong like a woman. Suddenly, what she was expressing was so clear to me. Her gestures were disciplinary, scolding, judgmental, public, and they surprised me. In my research, I talked to my teachers (I was studying palm leaf manuscripts and esoteric knowledge about the body and cosmology) often about gender, albeit in the contexts of ritual symbolism, music, and dance choreography. In these conversations, my teachers described a flexibility in the performance of gender – indeed it was acknowledged that there is a performative aspect to gender; there must be if a woman can dance in a male style or a man in a female style – without a socially judgmental attitude, or so it seemed to me.

There was no trans category. It was 1999. It was Bali. The notion of homosexuality (homoseks) was culturally available but was a Western import and didn’t have the same meaning in Bali as in the United States. The relevant native concept was banci (bahn-chee). Banci is an adjective that describes a combination of male and female, that is, androgyny. Banci can also be a noun, describing a person or thing having the characteristics of the adjectival banci. I contend that the man who was wearing his sarong wrapped like a woman – who had inspired Nengah’s adamant disapproval – was not a man wearing his sarong wrapped like a woman. He was banci, a legible subject position codified in particular ways – cross-dressing or combining aspects of male and female dress, cross-dancing or dancing in a style that is neither feminine nor masculine but something in between, doing the work of the opposite sex, or combinations of gendered forms of work that are usually segregated by sex. To be considered banci, there has to be a combination of clearly oppositely gendered elements – male body with female dress and work for example; female body with male dress and dance is another example. Banci is neither male nor female; banci is both male and female at once.

Banci people, historically, could develop alternative forms of intimacy; a makasihan relationship – which means “in love” – describes same-sex, marriage-like relationships of ‘life friends’ who refuse to marry, remain ‘sleeping partners,’ and share a living space. I most often heard stories of makasihan relationships in accounts of Gandrung, a very old dance genre in which beautiful young boys were imbued with love magic, adorned as women, and danced with men in a manner similar to Joged. a later form in which the female position was danced by a woman. This category of makasihan relationship has not survived to the present day. To put this another way, there are still men and women who never marry and have a same-sex ‘sleeping partner’ into adulthood and old age. People vaguely assume this style of relationship could be romantic and sexual but the descriptor makasihan is not used and it’s not necessarily the case that the actors consider themselves homoseks.


I wrote the previous paragraphs and footnotes in the early Spring of 2022. I took the accompanying photographs of Bruce dressed up in one of my sarongs -wrapped the way a woman wraps a sarong – sometime before April 12, the date on which he elected to have a follow-up surgery that resulted in his death from Radiation Fibrosis Syndrome three months later.

I intended these photographs to be illustrations of what banci combinations of gendered elements – male body, female clothing for example – can look like. My previous posts on wrapping a sarong like a woman and like a man are the frame of reference. On the other hand, I dressed myself like a man, which is actually an example of banci.

I have alot to say about gender and sarongs. I have more stories. But the fact that I made these photos of Bruce for this post and saved it as a draft here with notes to myself to add material but then didn’t finish it because Bruce’s hospitalizations started and my life began to revolve around his health crisis and our shared fear of catastrophic bleeding, and then he died, seems like it demands a comment. I think his picture here, lively and funny and alive and convincing in his channeling of a banci vibe, has stopped me these months since July 12 when he left this earthy realm and became memory and images stored on my hard disk. I have felt paralyzed every time and recoiled, closed the laptop.

I have to start making and writing again. I feel like I have been floating in a half-life with diminished, sometimes totally absent, purpose for months. And I have to finish this post, even though it won’t take the ideas I have been playing with as far as I intended. Maybe that’s fine. My posts get too long. So I’m publishing this in its unfinished state with notes to myself at the end as teasers for future posts I will commit to writing. They are good stories.

In the meantime you may wonder – so what about the banci person with the Joged troupe who had the body and short hair of a man and also wrapped his sarong like a woman?  I don’t know anything more about that particular person, though I do know quite alot more about banci and the difference it makes how one wraps a sarong.


Gandrung dance and Pak Later’s anger – “what is love?” Longing for the perfection of banci.

The hand movement to demonstrate the imaginary perfect companionate intimacy of husbands and wives.

Nengah’s other public anger about sex and her divorced aunt .

NOTE: I have used male and female pronouns here because we use gendered pronouns in English and these pronouns tell us something about the way different categories of person get combined or distinguished through clothing, work, and love in a sex-segregated Balinese context. I have not used plural they and their because these are not relevant linguistic terms or categories for Balinese.  The Indonesian language does not have the same linguistic conundrum we have in English; the Indonesian pronoun dia is ungendered, meaning both he and she, as well as it. Further, the third person and passive voice are used in conversation both to refer to the self and to other people. Names are used instead of ‘you’ or ‘I.’ My Balinese collaborator actually refers to himself as I Raga, which simply means ‘the body’ or ‘the person.’ In many ways this linguistic landscape is much better suited to ambiguous or androgynous gender and combinatory subject positions. I often think we should just import the pronoun dia.

[1] Joged Bumbung (you can find videos on YouTube) is a courtship dance in which young women, accompanied by a bamboo gamelan orchestra that is specific to the genre, dance with men from the audience, comprised at least of the village where the Joged is happening and often surrounding villages. My description is based on the performances I have seen in the past, the last one of which was about two decades ago. Even from the first Jogeds I saw in 1993 to the most recent I have seen in 2003, Joged dance changed and has no doubt changed more since, under the influence of global dance trends visible on social media. The following paragraph describes a more classic Joged rather than more recent sexualized iterations I witnessed in the early aughts that were regarded as scandalous by local politicians who deemed Joged dancers’ hip gyrations as porno. This designation was particularly potent at the time as there were national debates about legislation to outlaw ‘pornographic action.’ In these debates, pornogaphy was not limited to media produced with the intention to arouse; pornography was instead more broadly defined as any action that caused a feeling of desire in a viewer. This broadened definition is particularly concerning for the way it positions aroused citizens as agents of the state, discerning who is engaging in behaviors that should be counted as pornoaksi (pornographic action) and subject to disciplinary action carried out by the state.

In the classic dance, the Joged dancer begins behind a curtain (the dance space was just open ground, sometimes in the yard outside of a temple, in which a curtain was rigged up temporarily and a mat laid down for musicians), creating a sense of expectation by grasping the two curtains at their opening and making the curtain shake and dance before she dramatically parts the curtain and enters the space to perform an opening solo dance, using a fan, and accompanied by a musical overture.  When this introductory dance finished, the music and choreography changed. The Joged began a coquettish, stylized walk around the space to indicate she was ready to select a partner. Holding her fan in her right hand, her hand just above shoulder level, she rotated her hand, in this way fluttering her fan. She would flutter the fan like this for the length of time she circled the dance space looking for the man she wanted to dance with her.

Historically, she would select from the group of men who showed they wished to dance by sitting on the ground on the periphery of the dance space (By the time I did my PhD fieldwork, this spatial organization had changed and little kids and their mothers would ring the dance space for a better view while the men stood behind. When the Joged picked a man from this group by pointing her fan, he would have to make his way through layers of seated women and children.). Once the Joged decided who she wanted to dance with, she touched him on the thigh with her fan, at which point he would get up, join her in the dance space and pay for the dance. Historically, men would pour coins into a copper pot so that the audience could hear from the clatter how much the partner was capable of paying; the more he chose to pay for the dance, the higher his status. The man would begin to dance with the Joged and they would improvise, using a range of loose choreographic conventions that indicated seduction (the Joged shaking her hips while looking over her shoulder at her partner then jumping away playfully when he approached, hip-shaking, jumping away, and on like that), conflict (mock-hitting each other with leafy branches supplied in the dance space for the purpose), reconciliation (one partner turning away from the other, crouching, pretending to wipe away tears, and having to be comforted and coaxed back into the dance), elopement (pretending to be on a horse together). Mock sex was an addition to this conventional repertoire in the early aughts with the Joged pulling her partner in close, holding his hips against hers with one arm around his waist, and thrusting her hips against him, often ending this embrace by thrusting against him once (punctuated by the music) hard enough to knock him off balance, a move that read as both rejecting and humiliating. I saw this lead to real rage on the part of the partner more than once and he went after the Joged with true violent intent, a few times grabbing the branches left on the dance floor as a prop. The Joged, each time I saw this happen, retreated behind the orchestra where she was shielded from the furious partner, who was restrained by other men and expelled from the dance space.

When the dance performance was over, the music and choreography changed once again and the Joged performed a meandering slow-down dance, waving goodbye with her fan and exiting by the curtain through which she had initially entered the space.

[2] In Balinese cultural naming-practice, people have two names, a birth-order name and a personal name. Names get more complicated upon marriage, the birth of children, assumption of a ritual specialist role, all transformations that involve a re-naming. People are addressed by this birth order name up to marriage, sometimes by a personal name (and sometimes a nickname, especially for men). Which name is used seems to depend upon context. Because birth order names are non-specific with reference to the individual, personal names are used when use of the birth order name could be confusing. Actually, I’m sure it’s much more complex than this linguistically and culturally speaking. But it’s not something I ever paid much attention to. I just used names in the way the people around me used names – birth order names in some contexts, birth order plus personal names in other contexts.

A Quick Guide to Dressing Like a Man in Bali

Sarong Series Number 3: Some thoughts on gender, the body, and the universe (and sarongs).

Dressing like a man feels like winging it every time; I am not a man. I don’t have a detailed physical routine around wearing a sarong like a man. I have no reliable physical habits that direct my hands this way and then that, hold here with the left, turn at the waist slightly, pull with the right, wrap, fold, hold, accordion, roll; I have not wrapped my sarong like a man enough times for it to feel natural. My understanding is visual, conceptual, not tactile and physical.

In this series of photographs I am demonstrating how to wrap a sarong like a man. The photographs do not have the same finely detailed, step-by-step character as my Anatomy of Ceremony Clothes description. Maybe this is partly because I don’t have the same granular sensitivity to operations. There are things I’m missing – exactly how much overlap over the belly, how precisely to engineer the folds in the center front.  What are all those subtle hand movements that make it work just right so it looks right and feels right and stays together even while doing men’s work all day, every day.

Hands on hips: angry stance in a Balinese grammar of body-language.

We did the men’s sarong images after the women’s sarong-wrapping instruction (see previous post for more description of the photoshoot). Chris was still directing and he asked me to put my hands on my hips. I did and mentioned that arms akimbo means anger in a Balinese grammar of body language. That surprised him and he commented. He asked me to take another attitude. I corrected again, saying no, I can’t do that. It’s not male. He asked what is male? So I described the gender of attitude and demonstrated dance positions – male, female, banci (androgyne) as a quick shortcut to the difference in how a woman stands versus a man. I took a strong, male dance position – opened my eyes wide until the whites showed (fierce), did a deep sort of plie with my legs wide, arms spread, fingers spread. Then I stopped dancing and just squatted in the relaxed position of a man, knees wide, arms outstretched, elbows on my knees. This is the position of men resting, or waiting by the side of a road or path for nothing in particular, or watching other men harass their roosters to prepare them for a mock cock fight.

Igel muani keras – Strong male dance position.
Bengong – staring into space in a resting (men’s) squat.

Men’s sarongs wrap in the opposite direction from women’s. Women’s sarongs wrap from right to left, the sarong finishing with the left covering the right; men’s sarongs wrap from left to right, the sarong finishing with the right covering the left. This simple oppositional organization of fabric is part of a gendered logic that pervades Balinese cosmology, starting with the human body, which is conceptualized as a small homologue to the universe.

In a Balinese worldview (epistemology), gender is a way of describing just about everything and the relationships between types of things or processes. This is how symbolism works – certain categories of things or people are granted a value or an identity that is meaningful within a universe of other values. To begin to map this out, imagine the body oriented in space, standing facing north. The sun rises on the right hand and sets on the left. The east where the sun rises is male, as is the sun; the right hand, the sweet hand, is male. The west where the sun sets is female, as is the moon; the left hand, the dirty hand, is female. North and east are male (and one should always orient the head of a bed so it faces north or east according to a Balinese version of feng shui), the south and west are female. Magic is right-handed (benevolent and male) and left-handed (malevolent and female). The right hand is social. To rest the right hand in the left is to make a polite request. Babies are taught to ask for things in this way before they can speak. The left hand is intimate and private. To give someone something with your left hand, especially food, doesn’t just demonstrate intimacy; it creates intimacy. If the relationship is not an intimate one, then giving something with your left hand, especially food, creates hierarchy and would be an insult between status equals.

Humorally speaking, heat is male where coolness is female. Sky is male. Earth is female. Every plant, situation, object, activity and relationship can be broken down into gendered complementarities. Gender is a nuanced language for talking about relationships, interdependencies, the order of things. Nothing is complete without the combination, in some way however subtle, of these gendered aspects. Gender is generative.

Back to sarongs. I intend this document as a baseline, an instruction and also a kind of visual glossary of gendered categories that are embedded in the way people wear their clothes, and which repeat, like reverberations, like sound waves or the concentric circles of disruption that reveal the submergence of a stone. This water-reference is a cliché but it visualizes something that helps me to convey the expansive, encompassing aspect of the ideas that are relevant to sarong-wrapping (and everything else). With this in mind, I’m going to relate to you a folk story. The teller recorded, transcribed, and translated it from Balinese into Indonesian. I haven’t re-read it. I’m relying on my memory of the tale as that is how oral tradition works. It was told to me. I am telling it to you. You may ask yourself what this story, and the way I contextualize it, has to do with sarongs. The answer is – it has nothing to do with sarongs and it has everything to do with sarongs. I am going to say to you what authors sometimes say to their readers – just listen. Come with me.

In the story of Chandra[1], a commoner has abducted his high-born love-object in an attempt at marriage by capture (malagandang) but he doesn’t violate her.  He wants her to give herself to him. She tells him she will marry him, but only if he will climb a magnolia tree to get her the flower she points out in the tree’s crown. The Cempaka magnolia (Magnolia Champaka) is the most beautiful, with the most exquisite perfume, of the seven white, scented flowers used to infuse holy water. It is a small blossom – the petals roughly two inches long – for such a massive tree, that can grow to 160 feet tall with a trunk up to six feet in diameter. The tree in the story, of course, is one of such magnificent proportions.

Cempaka flowers are picked by men[2] who climb the trees in the early morning before the dawn coaxes the buds to open fully; in the dark, the Cempaka’s petals remain soft and straight, modestly concealing the flower’s sexual center instead of arcing back to reveal the stamens and pistil. The hopeful lover climbs the tree in the dark and calls down to Candra when he reaches one of the buds – this one? She says no, the one farther up. Can’t you see it through the branches? He climbs higher, again reaching a flower, again calling out – is it this one you want? No. It’s the one above that. Can’t you see it glowing white amidst the leaves? He climbs higher, every time calling out, every time told that the bloom Chandra wants is still above him. When he gets to the top of the tree without obtaining the particular flower his beloved wants, he looks up at the sky from the Cempaka tree’s topmost branches and suddenly realizes the glowing white, unopened bud he has been searching for is the moon he sees glowing out of the morning-dark. He understands, then, that she is utterly unobtainable; her very name – Chandra – means moon. In despair and shame, he throws himself from the top of the tree and dies. His body, then, begins to change and each part of it becomes a botanical element that sounds improvised in the words of an excellent story teller – his cheeks become the white flesh of the Durian fruit; his eyebrows transformed to become the perfect arc of the leaf of the Intaran tree (Azadirachta indica, also Neem); his fingernails now cloves of garlic; his teeth the seeds of the white pomegranate (delima); the whites of his eyes now tiny cakes of yeast; jasmine blossoms where his nostrils were; sweet spices – nutmeg, cinnamon, clove – replace pubic hair; Salak fruits for testicles; a long eggplant for a penis; Pepper vine for sinews; the blue water lily for the glance of his eyes; a coconut for a skull, the leaves of the water lily wrapped around it are where the membrane covering his brain used to be, the music of a palm frond left in place of the sound of his breath.

The botanical equivalents for the body – each body part proxied by a fruit, a flower, a seed, a leaf, a stalk, a root, fungus, mold, vine– are established in this story in a seeming improvisation.  Yet, these same botanical equivalents for the body are discoverable in the contents of two huge mortuary offerings in which every part of the small world (buana alit) of the human body is represented by its counterpart in the big world (buana agung) of the universe: from this we know there is a logic. These proxies are used to adorn a corpse when it is bathed and wrapped in meters of white fabric, doused repeatedly with holy water containing the seven scented blossoms, including the Cempaka.

So you see, the metamorphosis of the despair-inspired lover’s corpse is not only a story told late at night to entertain. It’s an inculcation that describes and teaches a critical act of transformation and un-making that must be performed for the dead, part of which involves assembling the offerings about which I am telling you, and which are later burned with the corpse during cremation.[3] After the burning, the body’s botanical proxies are used to adorn another proxy made of Chinese coins strung together to form a stick figure with all the fingers and toes articulated. The coins are laid on top of a reiteration of the body made of its vestiges. The bone fragments of the deceased are retrieved from the ash of cremation by hand, through sifting and searching for every discernible piece, placed in three shallow dishes made of leaves. In each dish are collected the bone-shards of the head, upper body, and lower body.  The ash-proxy’s head is made from head shards; the proxy upper body and arms from upper-body shards, the proxy lower body, legs, and feet from the lower-body shards.[4]

I did an interview once with a neighbor. It was a structured conversational interview – I had a set of questions I asked all of my interviewees, but the questions in between those questions were determined by the specifics of each conversation. Part of the interview asked the interviewee to draw a picture of the human body. My neighbor, whose name escapes me, was then in her forties. She was sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall, her legs straight out in front of her. I gave her the piece of paper and a pencil and asked her to draw the body. She held the pencil awkwardly and stared at the paper for what seemed to me like a long time. I think about it now and there were so many assumptions embedded in my request. I had a notion of an abstract body that could be separated from the specificity of particular bodies. I had a notion that this abstract body could be represented in a drawing. I started with an assumption that asking my interlocutors for such drawings would be a comprehensible request. I was starting with pictures from anatomies in my mind. I actually had no idea what my interlocutors were starting with. Of course I wanted to find out. The fact I handed my neighbor a piece of paper and a pencil suggests the body could be described in that way, with those tools. But why should it be? (I asked her later to draw the contents inside the body and again she paused before saying (roughly, in Indonesian of course) – well, I’ve never seen the inside of the body but I’ve cut pigs and I’m guessing what’s in pigs might be similar to what is in humans . . . Humbled again. Of course I have never seen the inside of the human body either.)

Then she looked up at me and she began to pat her body – her chest, her lap, her legs, back to her chest – with both hands as she asked me – you mean this? You mean me? So (going with whatever she was thinking) I said yes. And she began to draw. She pressed hard on the paper with the pencil to make her lines thick and dark and drew a stick figure with intense focus I didn’t understand at the time. To me it seemed strange she would work so hard on such a simple figure.  She narrated as she drew – this is me after I have died, after I have burned. A man from my family will make this for me . . . then if it has been done correctly, some time later, one of my sons will dream I have come to the gate of the compound, then entered the yard and asked for food (minta nasi, literally request rice, the word rice being a gloss for food generally). If/when this happens, they will know that the next child born in the house will be me; I will have returned.

At the time I didn’t understand what my neighbor was telling me. I was trying to make sense of it on the hoof – watching, listening – but it didn’t make sense. It was only later, I don’t remember how much later, that I realized she was talking about her own cremation and the final reiteration of her body after her corpse was finished burning, using her bones and ash arranged on a white cloth, then overlain with the coin proxy and adorned with the botanical proxies, doused in holy water, bundled up with a small inscribed shroud, placed in a miniature replica of a cremation tower, something like a sedan chair for bones and ash, and taken on its last physical journey to the ocean for the final dis-integration – water to water. My neighbor’s rhetorical move is fascinating to me. The abstract, generalizable human body I asked her about becomes her specific body. She drew a self-portrait, but not of her living self. She drew a self-portrait in ash.

I only know a small percentage of the botanical elements that correspond to the body; probably only the eldest and most skilled ritual offering specialists have memorized the contents of the most complex mortuary offerings and know what all of the possible proxies are. Sometimes a particular ingredient isn’t available so she has to know what else can stand for the veins or whatever. I watched an offering specialist call for the frond of a particular species of palm that proxies the ribs and no one could find one quickly so she instructed her assistant to go to the nearest metalsmith (there were many in that village) and request a tiny proxy in metal of the ribs curving out from the spinal column.

I couldn’t see the landscape the same again after that. Intaran leaves on the ground around the tree are perfect eyebrows. That particular palm that makes a quiet tuned percussion with its leaves is the ribs and their flexing with breath. The blue water lily is the glance of the eyes. That is how the anatomies called Tatwa Wit – Root Teaching – begin: the blue water lily is the glance of lovers’ eyes.

I first worked on a series of Tatwa Wit with two, later three, teachers, all high-caste men in their 60s who read, translated, and wrote palm leaf manuscripts in Old Javanese, which can perhaps be compared to reading, translating, and writing in Latin. The Tatwa Wit’s Western correlative texts are anatomies, with their meticulous visual deliberation on the particularities of the body and their representation. Considering Tatwa Wit alongside Western anatomies I was (and am still) struck by the disembodied, unlocated nature of Western anatomic representations of the body. The flayed and splayed bodies in our anatomies are chronicles of dissection. These disembodied bodies are particular but not specific, an additive model that begins with an armature, the skeleton, and builds the body layer by layer. The (Western) anatomy I have adds these systems, roughly, in the reverse order of the dissection that was the mode by which Western men came to understand the body and its ‘systems’ and then, perhaps, by order of perceived importance: the muscular system, nervous system, limbic system, parasympathetic system, orthosympathetic system, digestive system, respiratory system, circulatory system, lymphatic system, excretory system, and, finally, at the very end, the reproductive system. In the particular anatomy I am consulting, there are two headings below “Reproduction” – Man and Woman and The Male Reproductive System. “The female reproductive system” is a sub-heading under “the male reproductive system.” The very last discussion in the book is “Insemination, pregnancy and nursing.” Anatomies are maps of power. The conceit is that authoritative texts are simply true. Embedded dynamics of power, gender, and race are effaced and implicitly these documents purport there is no culture; there is only nature. I don’t accept that. You probably know that about me already.

Tatwa Wit anatomies start with the desire of lovers.

Sex is the foundational productive act/relationship that launches the continual, transformative process of making and unmaking that is the body over the course of a life and into death.

This is a tough part to write because what I am writing seems so obvious.  Sex makes new bodies. But I’m writing about anatomies. And there is a contrast between indigenous Balinese anatomies (Tatwa Wit) and the Western anatomies I grew up looking at, which depicted White, adult, male bodies as the exemplary representations of human contents and characteristics. The body was a fully-formed (male) body in stasis, perpetually flayed, taken apart, every functional aspect already disarticulated from every other – what the Balinese do through mortuary at the end of life.  Western anatomies, within this framework, are snapshots of corpses. not representations of living bodies in flux. And, indeed, we know it’s true that they are snapshots of corpses.

The originary combinatory impulse is initiated by the glance of would-be lovers. Their first insubstantial exchange of emotion, legible in a look, leads to a feeling. Their hearts beat faster, their breaths become shallow, their ears ring, the world constricts. They have sex. In the terms of the Tatwa Wit, their souls meet, their bodies meet and then their procreative fluids (kama putih and kama bang, literally white desire and red desire) meet to form an embryo the word for which (ajur mula) means molten metal, the creation of an alloy of white (male) and red (female) to form the body of a child. The fetal body develops out of an ongoing combination of gendered fluids mixing in a woman’s body over the months of a pregnancy. Old people admonish young couples to have regular sex during a woman’s pregnancy so the child will develop fully with no deficits; they clarify that sex is the work of marriage.  In this way, new bodies are made through sex, made of sex. Sex is the responsible creative act that brings bodies into being through their complementary contributions.

It’s gendered turtles all the way down.[5] Every productive process or relationship references sex, viewed most simply as the combination of male and female (androgynes are not the absence of gendered relationships but their combination in one body instead of two).

Sarongs are no different; sarongs are located in this symbolic scape. The way they wrap is not coincidence or random. It is determined by this cosmo-logic.

For men, the sarong is wrapped like this:

Image 1. You start the fabric at the center front or just to the right of the center front so it covers the genitals.

I’m not sure if the left hand position is correct or not. I did not watch adult men wrap their sarongs but my guess is that the left hand would start over the genitals.

Image 2. Wrap around the back, to the front again and accordion the remaining fabric to form a phallic drape down the center.

Arranging the phallic drape in the front.

Image 3. Over the sarong goes a shorter – in both width and depth – piece of fabric called a saput.  

Trying to organize the saput. I think you can tell I’m not used to this.

Images 4-6. A sash or leather belt secures the folds of the sarong and saput, which are then rolled down over the belt to hold all the layers in place at the waist.

Starting the belt.
Still working on the belt.
Rolling the sarong and saput down over the belt.

Image 6 (above)  In contemporary Balinese ceremony dress, men wear a kemeja, a simple button-down shirt with long or short sleeves. In these photos I wore a jacket rather than a kemeja. Historically, men wore no chest covering except in the temple or other context in which the most polite or reverent attitude was required, and then they wore the saput pulled up under the armpits and secured with a sash around the ribs (actually, I’m not sure if that’s correct. I don’t know if the fabric pulled up to cover the chest was also called a saput).

Image 7, I stand like a man.

I am not really standing like a man here, more like a dancer about to dance a male character. My toes are up in a dance move. My hands are tense with fingers spread in a dance move. This posture looks like I’m about to raise my arms into the stance of a strong character, like I’m gathering the energy to become a powerful figure. My teacher taught me to start the development of a male character at my feet, gather energy there first, then pull that energy up my body and fill the stance with power and intensity.

About the textile:

Before I left for the photoshoot I sewed the two pieces of a Songket Alam sarong together. Balinese Songket are hand-woven in two lengths the width of the loom and less than the 2 meters you would typically get with a batik sarong; because Songket are fine, you don’t get excess length the way you do in other fabrics that are less precious. Prior to the photoshoot, I had never worn any of my Songket Alam textiles as a sarong.  Songket Alam (alam means natural) are a modern style of hand-woven, supplementary-weft textile in which the motifs are created by colored cotton or silk instead of the gold or silver threads of traditional Songket, which were luxurious fabrics reserved for nobles and royalty. In supplementary-weft textiles, generally, the threads that make up the design are described as ‘floating’ on top of the base fabric; they are ornamental, integral to the visual design, but not structural. If you cut all of them off you would still have a length of cloth. I was told that what makes Songket Alam ‘natural’ is a combination of natural and commercial dyes so that once the cloth is woven and washed, the natural dyes run and combine while the commercial dye stays bright. The result is often a muted palette with splashes of color that can be extremely beautiful. For awhile, this style of weaving was the latest trend in luxury sarongs. It has been supplanted since but it’s still my favorite.

[1] The “C” is always pronounced like a “ch” in English.  Candra is pronounced Chandra. Cempaka is pronounced Chempaka, and so on.  I use the Indonesian spelling throughout.

[2] Sky is male. Anything that involves climbing trees or scaling heights is men’s work because of this association. Women do not climb trees.

[3] The main tasks of Balinese mortuary are to return the body and soul to its original forms and locations. The two souls must be separated from the physical body. The eternal soul – atma  – is returned to the undifferentiated divine from which it was borrowed. The personal soul – jiwa – is coaxed out of the body so that it may be prepared for return; a Balinese understanding of reincarnation entails the personal soul returning within the family rather than returning in some other higher or lower form of living creature unrelated to the deceased. The persuasion and shepherding of these souls to their proper places is performed by a Pedanda Siwa. At the same time, another priest, a Pedanda Buda, works to take the body apart through mantras and mudras while the family and community of the deceased do this work physically, taking the corpse through a series of rituals that return the elements of the body to their origins – earth to earth through interment, fire to fire and air to air through cremation. Ether I’m not sure about. And water to water through taking the body to the ocean in the form of ash and submerging it there. If the family can’t take the ash to the ocean, they take it to the river. Around each of these tasks are elaborate and beautiful preparation that are more or less elaborate depending on status and wealth: special offerings of meat and botanical elements; gorgeous textiles; proxy bodies made in various materials – sandalwood plaques, Chinese coins, botanical elements; inscribed shrouds; gold ornaments; gamelan music; cremation towers, sarcophagi in different animal shapes depending on caste and clan; and more I’m forgetting or don’t know about.

[4] I have done this – sifted through the ash to find the bones of the deceased – for the wife of the priest who was a relative to one of my teachers. I had been at the bathing of her corpse, observed her adorned with botanicals and bound in white cloth, her body stored under an inscribed shroud (tumpeng salu) while the complex offerings for her cremation (pengawak and tetukon) were assembled. I walked to the river with her grandchildren and her sister in law (who was a female priest) who carried a clay pot in which the liquid of the decaying body was collected, turned ritually into holy water and used to mark the third eye of each of us before it was emptied into the river. There was hardly anything there; corpses are now semi-preserved with formalin to spare the family the stench of death while they wait to purify the body with fire and the house with the smoke of incense and holy water. I have done this intimate work alongside the deceased’s adult children. This is work we must do for our parents; they brought our bodies here, our tangible materiality borrowed from the world around and our intangible essence lent by the divine. In turn, we shepherd their bodies and souls back to their origins. We return the immortal soul to the undifferentiated god stuff from which it comes, release the individual soul from the specific body (making it available to return), and restore the five elements of which the body is made: fire returns to fire; water returns to water; earth returns to earth; air returns to air; space returns to space. 

I have done this for someone else’s parents and I will not be able to do it for mine.

[5] Turtles all the way down is a reference to an indigenous concept of the world resting atop a turtle. Sometimes this turtle foundation is not just one turtle, but layers upon layers of turtles. Turtles all the way down, then, is a way of talking about a fundamental reality; there is no end to it.

An Anatomy of (my) Balinese Ceremony Clothes

Sarong Series Number 2: Some thoughts on memory, personal history, and sarongs.

I took my favorite batik tulis kain (hand-drawn batik sarong), the pointillist visual texture of which always makes me think of the Cosmos, to Bruce’s studio for my first lighting lesson. I took my kebaya (lace blouse in a traditional style), the white strapless (bustier), and my black sash, which is a wide, stiff (synthetic) grosgrain ribbon that repurposed from some package. It has frayed ends that I find interesting so I don’t cut them off. I wasn’t totally sure what I would do with the garments for the shoot. I didn’t think I would be putting them on. I didn’t give myself enough time to iron anything. I haven’t worn ceremony clothes for years.

My kebaya is beautiful – ivory silk with delicate cutwork embroidery around the neckline, cuffs, and hem; it’s old-fashioned now, having been made for me somewhere between fifteen and twenty years ago. I have not revised my ceremony clothes since then. Today, the trendiest kebaya are very long, sheer lace, worn over elaborately-lacy bustier lingerie that is meant to be seen. Some claim these sheer kebaya and visible lingerie are scandalous. I’m sure they, who object, enjoy the view even while they oppose the trend. These days, old women and little girls are the only ones who wear the style I have in public; my old-fashioned kebaya is perfect for my life-stage now that I am in the age-set of grandmother.

In the studio with Bruce, I ended up making photographs of these different pieces, each on its own. I am tempted to say they were still lifes but portraits probably describes the quality of the images better. Upon reflection the following day, I realized there was a conversation, maybe a tension, between the representation of the sensuous object – how the fabrics responded to being manipulated, how they reflected light, how the light and shadow lent them volume – and the social histories and biographies of these items of clothing. My images of the sash, in particular, reveal how in love I was with the gestural lines of the ribbon. Though it is just a flat, black, sinuous (un-ironed) strip, the sash in those photographs appears calligraphic. It is my sash I photographed. But I did not photograph my sash as a sash. I photographed it as a black form in a white environment with a horizontal surface, vertical space, and gravity.

When Bruce and I worked with my favorite kain (sarong; also, literally, fabric) – the cosmological, milky-way kain – I almost made the same mistake, photographing it as fabric only rather than also as kain. I arranged it over a rod we positioned in the space so the sarong could drape vertically and extend onto the horizontal surface. I was focused on the beauty of the folds of the fabric, the darks and lights as the angle of the light urged volume out of two dimensions. At the same time, I wanted to see more of the batik design. I kept spreading the fabric, which rendered it flatter and flatter. Finally, I simply folded it and let it hang straight from the rod, then stretch onto the horizontal plane. Bruce and I had an exchange about this. I wondered if it was too boring. He reminded me that often when we work through a series of images, the last is the simplest and sometimes ends up being exactly right. He said I should just take the picture so I would have it. And he was right. That simple shot is critically important. It tells the story of the fabric as a sarong: two meters of cloth make a skirt-like garment when wrapped around the body twice. The strapless and the kebaya I suspended from the rod by temporary loops of thread I sewed onto them at the top.

At the end of the shoot, I put on the kebaya over my bra and pants. I didn’t bother with the strapless and didn’t put on the sarong. I just wanted a few shots of my hands holding the fabric to illustrate my account of searching for kain for Wayan’s grandmother. I have no photographs of her and certainly none of the gestures I wanted to represent. And even if I had snapshots, or one spontaneous, bad photograph with lots of visual noise, none would have revealed what I want to show and say about a gesture that is both specific and non-specific. It is both personal and cultural, conventional. We, as humans embedded in particular social mileu, particular cultural/historical place/times, inhabit conventions and they feel authentic. When we activate these conventions of movement, of expression, we are communicating through our bodies in ways we intend as comprehensible expressions. What precisely we do has been choreographed and curated to match the cultural moment and both reflects and elicits our personal feeling as the cultural and the individual intersect, each informing the other. If our expressions stray outside the range of legible conventional responses, we become strange. If we deviate completely from legible cultural scripts, we are crazy. My photographic portraits of Wayan’s grandmother’s gestures are intended to visualize a legible conventional way of expressing gratitude and loss, Wayan’s grandmother’s gratitude for my gift of kain and how she held the kain against her body in order to reach out to touch me.

I haven’t yet told you how to wear ceremony clothes. My photographic portraits of kain, strapless, sash, and kebaya, all pictured separately, don’t show you how to wear ceremony clothes either. I had no human subject on whom to build a baseline image of how to wear ceremony clothes. I couldn’t make the images myself; indeed, I needed Bruce to take the pictures of my hands holding the kain. In order to offer this foundational, visual account, I had to become the model.

Here is how it happened. Bruce asked me to be the model for his lighting class, the one he was practicing for when he and I worked on my first set of ceremony-clothes pictures. He also asked me to play the role of a client, coming to his students (four men and a woman) with a purpose in mind. I could have come wanting all kinds of things: professional headshots; sexy boudoir photos; a stark and unapologetic documentation of my ageing. What I chose to bring was a pile of sarongs, two corsets, my ceremony sandals, three sashes, two jackets, my kebaya (lace blouse), and four stories in need of visual starting points for the imagination.

How can I illustrate remembered events in the absence of any images from those times? I have no photos or videos of any of them. I run them in my mind – multi-sensorial memories to which I have probably unknowingly added or subtracted things over the years. I keep meaning to excavate my research materials to find the printout of fieldnotes and emails home, to see what I wrote about these moments at the time, if I wrote anything at all. Given the fact these memories stand out and persist, after more than two decades, suggests to me I would have noted them then. But it’s possible I never did. Yet, it’s clear to me that the memories that comprise the Sarong Series, even if I didn’t write about them at the time, were formative. The influence of those situations on my thinking has expanded over time and contributes to a conceptual framework I use to understand the world around me and what happens in it.

The Sarong Series memories are part of a kind of ethnography of situational identity I am writing as personal history. What I mean by this is that I think I am exploring how our identities form and disintegrate, reintegrate and shift depending on the situations – social dramas – in which we act. Who we think we are shifts depending on our (social) location(s). Who we think others are – how we categorize each other, and what then we expect from them and us based on our always-limited understandings of individual pasts and cultural contexts – is unstable in its meanings. Different situations conjure different parts of the self. The self is an amalgam of individual and cultural, a convergence that is disruptive and productive; meaning-making plays out improvisationally amongst cultural actors, people who simply happen to be there doing what they do in the way they do it.

In the photoshoot with Bruce’s students I wore the ceremony clothes that I wore years ago in Bali. I also wore clothes I wanted to use to approximate the native (in the sense of local, contemporary) dress worn by others. Those others are specific (nameable individuals) and non-specific (cultural categories or subject-positions into which nameable individuals fit in different ways at different times). Standing in my ceremony clothes I stand for myself as well as for ‘women in ceremony clothes.’ When I wrap my sarong as a man I am standing in for a ‘man in ceremony clothes.’ In my kain and selendang (usually draped over the shoulder, though I wore mine as a sash in the photographs) from Minangkabau, I am standing in for the old woman who explained to me how Songket (rich ceremonial fabrics woven with gold or silver threads) changed during the twentieth century and why. Her story comes later.

For me, the photographs the students took during the lighting class are visual prompts, sketches. They are both informative and not informative. That is, they give us that visual baseline for the imagination – what do ceremony clothes look like? But they still don’t show us the specifics of what I describe, the particular events as they occurred to particular individuals. The photographs are placeholders I can not replace with something more persuasive – images that would feel native – in the absence of a re-creation on site, a play I would stage in the places where the events occurred with local actors playing the parts in my memories. At the same time, these local actors would play the parts of cultural conventions – the rules, and the rules for breaking the rules, the specific of individuals and the non-specific of culturally legible (re)actions. It strikes me how in fantasy and memory, the mind plays all the parts.

When past events exist/persist only in the mind, the imagination populates every subject position, not just the character “self,” if the self even is a character in the memory. How often in memory or fantasy or a dream does one see through one’s own eyes, occupy one’s own body, engaging from the place we can gloss as “I”? Are memories always the constructions of voyeurs?

When I first wrote the paragraphs above, I used the pronoun ‘we’ throughout. In my revision I worked hard to get rid of the ‘we’ in favor of language that is more general and also less personal. When I used “we”, I felt I was describing my own experience of dreaming and memory at the same time I was positing my experience of dreaming and memory is cultural, and thus shared.[1] “We” reveals a presumption that you will understand what I assert and may agree with it if you recognize an alignment of shared experience. By shifting away from this intimate and inclusive language and its presumptions, I feel I have taken a different kind of risk and universalized an experience that I/you can argue is not universal and forcing you to opt out if you don’t recognize yourself rather than inviting you to opt in if you do.

I want to feel connected, to feel I am not alone with my thoughts, my feelings, my experiences, anomalous in a world of interlocutors who don’t understand me and who I don’t understand. The premise behind anthropological analysis is that there is a kind of collective conceptual infrastructure. This infrastructure is sufficiently complex and flexible that it can support seemingly endless variation within a set of constraints that give meaning to the specific while also representing cultural understandings that are non-specific. I can feel a specific love to which I attach particular memories, associations, sensations, and aspirations. The fact I call it love and not something else, and that the person to whom I declare my love understands what I mean, or thinks (s)he does, and answers back with the same words, even as (s)he has different memories, associations, sensations, and aspirations, reveals the non-specific, the shared cultural value(s) plied together with the specific intimacy and attachment felt by the beloved.

How to Wear a Sarong

This is an instruction in how to wear a sarong like a woman, offered in pictures and words.

Images 1 & 2: Taking direction from the student photographers who were doing a few test shots to get the lighting right. I had told them what I was up to and they asked me to hold the fabric first before starting the instruction series. In the first image, my head is turned so I can see the picture on the computer across the room. In the second image, @itslikeread8 was posing me.

Image 3-: Take the kain (fabric) and start it at your right hipbone so that the hem comes to the ground and the excess extends up onto your torso straight. Wrap the kain around the back, across the ass, around the left hip . . .

(@itslikered8 asked me to take my bra off in case you are wondering; I decided to use these because in the series wearing the bra, the bra is distracting by comparison. @itslikered8 arranged my hair strategically. Take a look at the beautiful images of women wrapped in textiles in her Modern Muse Series @itslikered8 has posted on her Instagram.)

Images 4-7:  . . . across the belly . . .

Images 8-11: . . . then around the back again until the end comes to just inside the right hipbone or to the center front. Arrange the fabric so it’s smooth against the torso all the way around.

Images 12-15: Put the strapless bustier on over the fabric. The strapless holds the kain up as well as shapes and conceals the body under the kebaya.[2]

I was having trouble starting the zipper on the strapless so I looked up to ask for help.

Images 16-19: Once the strapless is secure over the kain, you put on the kebaya, which fastens with tiny snaps over a placket.

Images 20-23: Over the kebaya you wear the sash at the waist. I tie mine in an unconventional way, using a two-loop symmetrical bow positioned in the center-back with the ends hanging down below the knee. In Indonesia, women mainly wear their sashes tied at the center front, with the ends hanging down to the knee. These days, too, many women wear short sashes pinned at the waist so there are no ends. Traditional dress has its fashions and trends like everything else.

Image 24: Put on fancy sandals.

[1] In a Balinese cultural understanding of dreaming – at least as I understood it years ago when people described their dreams to me and the meanings of those dreams – what happened in dreams was really happening; the events in dreams were not sub-conscious desires or the work of the imagination. The Balinese men and women who talked to me about dreaming understood dream-narratives to be real events happening in real time in an alternate plane of existence called the niskala, the unseen/invisible world. The visible world is called the sekala.

[2] Traditionally, women in the past wrapped a 9-12 meter long band of (approximately) 6-inch-wide woven fabric around and around the torso, creating a strapless binding from the middle of the hip, over the bust, to just under the armpits.

Sarong Series Number 1:

Searching the Market for the Right Sarong for Wayan’s Grandmother

Having lived half or more of my life already has given me a sense of urgency I didn’t have when I was young. I had the sense that there was always a chance to do it again, to go back. But there isn’t. There never was. You are only ever where you are, who you are, once. We live each experience with that particular viewpoint a single time. And once it has past, any similar situation or occasion is already populated by memory and emergent understanding. Any return is a frame for comparison within the self. To return is to revisit experience that already has formed us

How do I say this better/different? We do a thing. And we think we can do it again, re-do it. But we can never recover the strangeness of a first confrontation with difference or unfamiliarity, the pure curiosity that comes from knowing almost nothing. We can never see the colors and hear the sounds and smell new air in the same way again. We know this. We only have first impressions once. This sense of fresh wonder is so beautiful and even as we bathe in its sensuous beauty it is emptying out of us, replaced by the memory of fresh wonder.

The stories I want to tell you are not stories of things that happened every day in the same, predictable way. Such stories are non-specific and so begin to be cultural descriptions – women ask “have you cooked yet” in the morning. You ask (or used to ask[1]) – have you bathed yet? – of people on their way back from the river. I can tell you this because I have (been) asked this question so many times.  It’s a bit like – how are you? Yet even as I write that – that I don’t want to tell you stories of things that happened in the same way many times, I realize that isn’t true. I do want to tell you those things. They come to mind when I start to tell you about the time when something happened a little differently. And they remind me of the first time I heard the question and felt confused about how I should respond. When I lived in east Bali, in Karangasem, my kitchen had a window that looked out on a path people used to get to their gardens. When we would see Ibu Tumpek (literally Mother Tumpek, but in cultural terms something like Mrs Tumpek), my neighbor across the road, walking on that path in the morning, she would look up and call out – have you cooked yet? – even as she could see we were cooking. This happened every day. It was habitual ritual.

This is my favorite sarong – an example of hand drawn batik (batik tulis) on very fine cotton.

There was one (first) time when Wayan’s grandmother came into my kitchen (actually Wayan’s kitchen; I was borrowing his house) and lifted the lids off all the pots in which I was cooking the food I would eat that day (because women always get up early and cook for the whole day so that’s what I do when I am in Bali), looked at each dish as the steam carried the smell of rice and vegetables out, and then asked me – in Balinese – ampun masak!? – have you cooked yet? And I answered – Ampun – already. And then we did that every day. Every day she came in with small offerings to distribute throughout the kitchen – little squares of banana leaf with a tiny pinch of rice and grated coconut colored yellow with fresh turmeric on each – on the stove, on top of the rice cooker, on top of the cabinet that held dishes, resting on the basket that held the basic cooking ingredients (shallot, garlic, fresh turmeric, ginger, galangal, hot peppers), the bucket where the uncooked rice was stored.

Wayan’s grandmother is so tiny. I don’t speak much Balinese (Indonesian, the language I speak, is a completely different language) so we didn’t have a way to sit down and really talk. But I loved her in the way you love someone who becomes part of your life every day, part of your habitual ritual, like the fox talking to the little prince (in Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince) about what it means to become tame, that missing someone effects a kind domestication that we choose. So when they don’t come you worry. When they never come you cry. And then when they come again you cry again for confronting the fact you were working to make peace with the loss – by death or anger or some other departure that you never know.

I gave her a sarong when I left Bali that year. She held it with one hand underneath it, cradling it as if she held a platter. She put her other hand, the sweet hand, on top, covering it as if she was protecting it. And then she held it against her chest with her left hand and with her right hand she stroked my right arm from my shoulder to my wrist over and over. I’m kind of making this up. I don’t have that kind of memory that captures everything.  Maybe I do and the problem is that I don’t recall everything, or can’t conjure it perfectly from wherever it’s stored in the brain. Or maybe I do but I don’t think I do so I decide my memory is a generalization, a cultural trope, rather than a specific moment.

How Wayan’s grandmother held the sarong I gave her. These are my hands, holding my sarongs. I am wearing a kebaya, a traditional garment always worn for ceremonies and by some old women every day. This kebaya is silk and specifically for ceremonies.

I am describing something that we can gloss as habitual ritual. This is what people do when they are starting to walk toward loss. Maybe this is what, in particular, women do, when they are preparing to let go of someone, stroke the arm from the shoulder to the wrist, shoulder to wrist, shoulder to wrist, hold at the wrist, eye contact, shake the wrist for a half a second and let go.

This is how Wayan’s grandmother held the sarong I gave her against her body so she could touch me with her right hand.

This is what a kiss is – cheek to cheek, an inhalation, switch sides, cheek to cheek, an inhalation. If you are kissing someone you don’t know well, your cheeks don’t touch, the inhalation is quick and shallow. If you are kissing someone you love, your cheeks touch and the inhalation is deeper, slower. If you are kissing someone you have loved a long time, someone who has been gone or will be gone awhile, hold your cheek against theirs, breathe them in until your tears mix with their tears.

Wayan’s grandmother is gone, as my grandmother is gone. I saw neither of them die. I was far away both times. So to me they have never died. They are alive in my mind. I don’t feel sad. Remembering Wayan’s tiny grandmother holding my arm and then sitting with me, her hands in my lap and mine in hers, sitting with the (f)act of leave-taking, she is here with me. The past is happening right now.

She was married by capture. When I asked my friend Wayan to ask her how she married and she told him the story, which he reported to me, he looked at me astonished. He never knew. And I observed that he had never thought to ask. His mother, too, was captured. She told me about it, not him. But those are long stories, tales of the betrayal of women, the force of men’s love and desire, and also about the Japanese occupation before Indonesian Independence and families’ efforts to keep their daughters from being taken as comfort women. I will tell you those stories but not yet. What I want to tell you right now is about searching in the market for that sarong for Wayan’s grandmother, the gift I gave her before I left Bali (I wonder who has it now? I wonder if she was cremated in it?).

In Bali, bright colors are called warna muda, young colors. Dark colors are warna tua, old colors. These terms both describe the relative values of colors (warna), their lightness or darkness, at the same time they describe who should wear them. The young should wear light/bright (young – muda) colors. The old should wear dark (old – tua) colors. I was looking for a dark colored sarong but I had a particular technique in mind for how the fabric should get its printed pattern. I wanted a batik cap. Batik is a style of resist dyeing in which a design is drawn on fabric in wax. When the fabric is dyed, everything but the area painted in wax will take the dye. A batik made by drawing these designs by hand is called batik tulis. Tulis means to write. So batik tulis refers hand-drawn batik. Batik tulis is the most valuable form of batik, especially if the design is very complex with tiny lines and elaborate floral and faunal motifs. The finest of fine batik tulis designs are drawn on silk.

This sarong, and the one below, are both in the warna tua range. They are batik tulis, not cap.

The local market was largely for tourists on the first floor and for local people on the second. There was no batik tulis there, being too expensive and special to find at a local market. Such high-end fabrics are only available in special fabric stores or fabric markets and the best batik tulis you have to go to Java for. Batik is not indigenous to Bali though they have developed a distinctively loose and improvisational batik style that is beloved of tourists for its bright, beachy holiday aesthetic.

I was searching for batik cap, A cap (prounounced chahp, the ‘c’ in Indonesian sounds like ch in English, the a an ah sound) is a stamp in which the batik design has been rendered in thin copper wires that, when dipped in wax, can be stamped onto the fabric leaving the wax behind in a pattern with a repeated motif. These simple batiks can be rustic, with sloppy registration and over-lapping repeats.  They can also be refined, almost indistinguishable from the lowest levels of batik tulis. I looked for hours, stall after stall, inspecting the right sides and the wrong sides of so many fabrics that fell into the tua range and were not too fancy for daily use. Machine-printed fabrics that mimic batik are common now and some of them are very good. You have to inspect the repeats carefully, studying the way the color bleeds to the back, to tell them apart. The printers are clever. They build into their designs the distinctive crackling of wax that allows a tracery of dye to impinge upon solid fields of color.

Another batik tulis in the tua range.

Market vendors will always tell you what you want to hear. Is this batik cap? Yes, that’s cap. Before noon, they are looking for their first sale of the day and promise you a ‘morning price’ – using the phrase in English with rolled r’s – if you will buy what they are selling. After they receive the money they will take the bills and brush them against all the other wares in the shop, imbuing the goods with a kind of sympathetic attraction magic. One sale draws other sales. We know this. (For a rambling description of several different kinds of Balinese attraction and invulnerability magic, I have written a footnote: [2])

The sarong I bought was one of several. Hers was brown on blue with areas of a dark red. It was perfect for an old woman. And though I thought it should be good for every day, Wayan’s grandmother said she would wear it to the temple. It was a beautiful, dark sarong, the best among many. I bargained hard for a good price, refusing the seller’s efforts to price the sarongs individually, insisting instead on a price for the group. 

I am good at this. I am animated and persuasive, charismatic in those moments of pursuit. I remember once when I was twenty-two, during my first trip to Bali. I was in the middle of haggling for something when the seller suddenly laughed and said (in heavily accented English) “bew-tee-full”, so disarming me that I felt shy and embarrassed at the praise. I don’t remember exactly what happened then. Maybe that was her concession and I paid for the thing and left. Or maybe that was her counter and I conceded and paid for the thing and left.

The fabric-seller finally accepted my offer and we both had a moment of triumph until a look of panic crossed the woman’s face and we both realized she had accepted a price that was too low but it was already done. When you are already to that stage the only way you can undo it is to refuse the sale altogether, another kind of misfortune. When I paid her I unraveled my haggling and gave her more than she had asked for at the outset, folding the money into her hands so no one, not her, not the other vendors, would see what I gave her. I love the game of bargaining but I never want to hurt anyone. It is enough for me to know that I am not being gouged as an idiot tourist who has no understanding of the value of things. To pay more than you should entails a kind of shame; women should know what things should cost.

[1] When I did my PhD fieldwork between 1998 and 2000, the Balinese I knew in the village where I worked had bathrooms in their houses, but still used the nearest river to bathe in the morning after breakfast and in the evening before dinner. It was not uncommon for people, also, to shit in rivers and people I knew talked about the experience of shitting in the river as extremely pleasurable (definitely preferable to shitting in a bathroom) for its sensuous aspect as well as a kind of contemplative ambiance they felt squatting in cool running water. For those of you who might wonder how to shit in a river, here is how: Pick a river, and part of a river, where there is a good current. This may be just ahead of a little falls or an area where the water speeds up because it narrows there, either narrowing by the river bed squeezing or narrowing by virtue of rocks that create sluices between them. Definitely don’t shit in a swimming hole or just above one! If the body of water you are considering is sluggish at all, don’t go there. Choose the woods. Always shit downstream of any place where other people will be bathing or swimming or picnicking.  Take your shoes off, but not your sarong (hopefully it’s obvious that in this instruction you are not wearing anything under the sarong such as underwear or tights or whatever. If you are not wearing a sarong and are, instead, wearing pants, then you will take those off and if you want to cover yourself on the way into the water, use your pants, or some other piece of cloth, such as a towel, as if it were a sarong). Wade into the water, but only so far that the water comes to your hips when you squat. As you squat, if you are worried about being seen by someone else, pull your sarong (or sarong substitute) up so that it is always just above the water until you are fully squatting and you can gather the sarong at your waist. If you don’t care about being seen, or you know you will not be, you may, of course, just take off whatever clothes you want and get in the water.  Squat facing upstream. Then, once you are comfortable squatting, just relax and let your mind wander and etc.

[2] Some sellers will use a more complex and dangerous attraction magic. During my first fieldwork, I studied attraction magic formulae called pengeger, a term we can gloss as magnet, used for love and desire. The principle is the same for all pengeger. The basic idea is this – there is a mantra in which the object (beloved, customer, antagonist) is constructed as bereft of everything s(h)e needs. In love magic, this looks like imagining the beloved is sick in a wasteland, her entire family gone, her village annihilated, fields burned, shelter destroyed. In sum, she has nothing but the lover, the one who is reciting the love magic formula. By reducing her to this level of devastation, the objective is to make the lover, in effect, the last man on earth, the only one she can turn to for shelter, food, family, comfort, health, love.

You can make a pengeger yourself, if you know what you are doing. Most people don’t know about these things as they are considered rare knowledge and protected in palm leaf manuscripts written in Old Javanese, creating a kind of linguistic threshold most people can’t cross. You can also purchase a pengeger from a ritual specialist. If you are making it yourself, you will say the mantra over something you will then consume (food, drink, betel, cigarette), while imagining your object. If someone else is making the pengeger, they will say the mantra over the thing they will imbue with attractive power. There will be prayer, an offering, incense (the smoke carries the prayer to the gods), holy water. Then you consume the now-potent commestible.

There are other ways to incorporate the pengeger for more long-term benefit. A ritual specialist can inscribe your body invisibly with Balinese sorcery symbols, including writing sacred syllables on your forehead in oil and on your tongue in honey, which of course you then swallow. Balinese sorcery symbols and sacred syllables are potent images and sounds that invoke unseen beings. Invoking such beings carries with it risks. Once these potent beings surround you with their persuasive powers, as long as you do the correct propitiatory rituals you can keep them satiated and helpful. If you make mistakes – forget about them and fail to pour a libation of your drink before you drink, drop a bit of food from your plate onto the ground before you eat, ask for permission before you pee, etc., — you can incur their wrath and they are unforgiving and vengeful. Often when men die unexpectedly in out-of-the-ordinary ways – drowning in shallow water, for example – it is presumed they offended unseen beings (I have never heard of this related to women).

The most dangerous form of attraction magic I learned about is a tiny length of thin, gold wire called a ‘needle’ (jarum) that is imbued with magic and then pushed under the skin at the third eye. This style of attraction magic is also a kind of invulnerability magic that is protective against malevolent attacks. I never heard of women using jarum. And when men talked about it they would whisper, speculating about other men who might be using one based on their extraordinary abilities to avoid injury in conflict with others and their remarkable capacity to attract young and beautiful girls as lovers or gain political power and wealth. Jarum are incredibly ‘hot’ and require considerable personal power (sakti) to control. If a woman were to use a jarum, she would be an extraordinarily powerful and ambitious woman, tantamount to a man in Balinese cultural terms. If you don’t have the personal power to manage a jarum, it will kill you in a distinctive way. You don’t just die in your sleep from using a jarum. You will die by having a coconut land on your head when it falls, or by falling out of a coconut tree despite being well tethered, or by falling off a cliff.

If any of the sarong-vendors in the soft-goods part of the market were using pengeger, they were weak. None of the sellers could persuade me to buy any fabrics I later wondered why I had purchased; this is how you know you have been magically manipulated; you think – what was I doing buying this piece of junk for that ridiculous price?!? Similarly, you know you have had love magic put on you when you emerge from an affair and later think – what was I doing? I don’t even find that person attractive?!?

Mousetrails, a Shattered Blouse & Naked

I bought it more than twenty-five years ago. It’s black georgette with a looping and gestural floral chainstitch embroidery, made with thread that’s a little glossy, making it either silk or a synthetic. The blouse came from a little boutique that sold things mostly from India, embroidered and sequined dresses made from velvet and rayon, and scarves and blouses in sheer fabrics like this one. I used to wear the blouse over a black bra and under a fitted jacket (which upon reflection did not fit me as the torso was too long, so the bottom of the waist hit at about my hips, causing a wrinkle at the base of my back and obscuring my shape). I stopped wearing it regularly many years back but kept it because it’s romantic and the sleeves are too long, which means they extend to my fingertips and drape at the wrist in a way I like.

Portrait with a Shattered Sleeve

I went to look for the black embroidered blouse the other day to wear it for some photographs with Bruce. We had no photographs of us together as he is always the one behind the camera and I wanted to document the time before the cancer treatment that will change him in ways we can’t anticipate. But when I went to my clothes rack to get it, I found the right sleeve in tatters, which confused me and made me sad. The rest of the blouse was not damaged. The last time I had gotten it out, also for some photographs with Bruce, the sleeve had been intact. I inspected the sleeve in relation to the rest of the garment to figure out if the fabric had finally begun to break from the stress of time.

It wasn’t time, unless the right sleeve aged while the fabric that made up the body and the left sleeve did not. Here is my theory. One night, after I returned from some weeks of travel this summer, I was awakened by a rustling sound. I didn’t know if it was in the room or in a dream at first but it recurred after I was fully conscious and it was in the direction of my clothes rack and sounded quite high up. I listened for long enough to decide that whatever it was it was not a threat to me. I got out of bed and turned on the light. On my clothes and on the floor was a confetti of shredded paper that I realized must be the work of a mouse harvesting the paper in the hangars from the drycleaner.  When I went to inspect, I found that several of the hangars were already stripped except for a fringe of paper around the wire. The one the mouse had just been working on was only partly gone; what remained was scalloped around the edges by the mouse’s teeth or claws. I don’t know how mice shred paper. It was making a nest.  Which meant the nest was close by.  I pulled out the leather satchel I had gotten in Florence and in which I had stored two pairs of long leather boots. I pushed the toe of one around inside the case and heard a tiny mewing. While I was trying to decide what to do, the momma jumped out and ran down the stairs. There were pinkies. I won’t tell you the rest of that story.  It’s not the point of this post. It creates the context for my theory that the right sleeve of my black georgette blouse was the momma mouse’s road to the paper in the hangars.

The Ladder

When my mother was newly married to my father, and before my sister and I ‘came along’ (as my father would say), she was working on a Master’s degree research project in Small Mammal Ecology.  She identified four distinct micro-ecosystems on the land of the cabin they had purchased in New Hampshire. In each quadrant she set live traps, baited with peanut butter, every evening.  Every morning she checked her traps and recorded the species of rodents she caught in which ecosystem.  She told me how she caught the same critters in the same traps over and over and that after she recorded the data and let them go, they always followed the same tracks away from the traps.  She described how the critter (maybe she was imagining a particular one) would run along the same log, jump to the same rock, scrabble up the same tree trunk, every time. Since then I have taken to calling my routines ‘mouse trails,’ and to describe adventures away from the routine as ‘getting off the mousetrails.’ Habitual and new ways of thinking, too, have been affected by this metaphor and have become old or new ‘mental mousetrails.’

The reality of these roads of routine became visible to me one spring. We had a heavy snow late in the winter that had frozen and persisted with a thick crust for a long time. It had finally started to melt and I had ventured out with S to take a walk around some historic battlegrounds and up onto the rocks at their perimeter. At the edge of the road we took I saw a tracery of impressions in the grass where the snow had gone and realized they were mousetrails beneath the snow, a maze of grass-lined tunnels with a roof of ice.  I imagined the entire field could be mapped like this with the imprint of habitual routes.

I think my sleeve became such a route, a delicate ladder to the top of the rack. I think she tested the suitability of fabric as nesting material at first and rejected it in favor of the paper There was a large, uneven hole at the wrist that didn’t fit together. There was fabric missing. The rest of the holes were tears running in the direction of the weft, like tiny rungs for a mouse’s feet.

When I discovered the damage I had a convergence of thoughts –What else can I wear for the photographs? I have no other blouses. I love this blouse. Should I repair the blouse? I’ll wear it anyway. It’s tatters became beautiful in a way to me then, a serendipitous lace. And then I thought – I am naked. I have no blouses at all.

A few details about my brilliant and dear friend and collaborator:

Bruce’s studio is located in Frederick, MD; you can follow him and find examples of his work on Instagram at @bruce_falkinburg

Bruce is also currently teaching photography classes at Photoworks at Glen Echo Park in Glen Echo, MD:
Intro to Black/White Darkroom Photography
Advanced Black and White Photography

You can follow Photoworks on Instagram at @glenechophotoworks

See the online schedule for Bruce’s changing roster of workshops.

In his own words:
Bruce enjoys both black and white fine art and modern commercial photography. He has a lot of cameras.

And I would add to that:
He also has a lot of lights.

Naked and the New Black Jacket

Last night I was sitting with Bruce and he was doing something on his phone after telling me about getting a new guitar, visiting with his friend Anthony, who is also a guitarist.  As he fiddled on his phone, purchasing some additional accessory for the sound system he is building at home, I suddenly felt so sad and deficient. I started to cry while sitting there in the kitchen on the little stool waiting to turn the zucchini over in the oven.

This doesn’t seem to be about the new black jacket. But it is. Because really I was crying about the jacket and all of the undone projects I think about every day but, lately, particularly the jacket because it has gotten cold and I want the jacket to pull on in the morning. I wish to stretch my arms into its embrace, the sleeves stretching just a little as I straighten my arms and my right hand slides out the other end first and I watch the white fingertips emerge, framed by the black jersey. Brenda gave me this fabric this past summer as it’s not in her palette and black looms large in mine. I don’t even know how many yards are there. She also gave me a beautiful pale grey, same style of jersey. Both are a wool blend. I haven’t burned them to get a sense of the ratio of fibers – how much wool, how much synthetic.

It took a moment for Bruce to see I was crying and when he did he asked why and I said I suddenly felt sad and he told me not to be sad. I knew he thought it’s because of his cancer so I told him I wasn’t sad because of him, that I was disappointed in myself because I don’t do the things I love. I don’t make the things I want to make. I make things for the business, little things, closures, fill orders, cut leather straps into small pieces, punch them, rivet them, set snaps, attach hardware, put them in plastic sleeves with the correct card listing the product name, product code, provenance, instructions for use, instructions for how to recycle the card, compost the plant-based plastic (which just seems like a self-aggrandizing gesture because there are not many localities with easy and available industrial composting facilities and if you don’t have access to composting then plant-based plastic is no better for the environment than any other plastic), and find JUL on social media.

I was crying because these repeated movements are the making I do rather than the other making that I want to do every day, most of the day. My work table is piled with leather, with the tools for making these styling solutions, with the tiny off-cuts of strap ends and the little nubs of leather left over when I punch holes.

I keep telling myself that it’s a matter of schedule. If I organized my time better I could get everything done.  I would get everything done – product made, house cleaned, de-cluttered, and downsized, everything excess purged, every unwanted and unused item re-homed, relocated to the place it now belongs, used by someone, nothing wasted. If I organized my time better I could get everything done.  I would get everything done. And I would have time and a clean cutting table to lay out paper to make the pattern, re-cutting the pieces of my sloper to become the style lines and silhouette of this new jacket that investigates the possibility of a personal grammar of seams that describe where the contours of my body change direction. I imagine a luxury of time in which I can just play with forms in paper and then try them out in muslin, documenting this experimentation with conjuring three dimensions out of two.

I didn’t say most of this because Bruce was more interested, perhaps, with what he thought was a validation – protesting that I am making things all the time, that even the little little things (as I call them) are beautiful, that I shouldn’t beat myself up, that I shouldn’t be so hard on myself, that my protestant work ethic is making me unhappy. This sort of validation does not help me or assuage the pain. It is not comforting. I am not satisfied with making the little little things I worry are disposable. I kept saying over and over – I want to make beautiful things. I am naked. I don’t have a jacket.

Kevin does this too – tells me not to be so hard on myself, that I’m fine the way I am. These attempts to validate the adequacy of my daily routine invalidate the rest. If I seek validation, I want a different sort, one that supports my interest in making my designs, in developing my writing, in becoming a better business woman, in developing the educational content my customers are asking me for.

I don’t fully understand this dynamic – this impulse of theirs to calm me by patting my head and telling me it’s ok. Especially Bruce, who is always striving to perfect his art, to carve out time for his photography so that he can comfortably assert he is a photographer who supports his art with his job, rather than he has a job and takes photos when he can. I am that same person. When I say I’m a designer I want it to mean of clothes, not (only) of knitwear jewelry and screw-in closures.

Actually this is not about the Black Jacket. I’m writing about self-fulfillment.  Funny to use that word, which I use to talk about the orders I pack – fulfillment. I fulfill other people’s orders. I do not fulfill myself. There is a voice that says – you are complaining about something you do nothing about. I have not made a garment since I made the Little Black Overdress this summer. No, that’s not true. I made the pajamas for Bruce. I wasn’t going to make them at first because I want to work on the Black Jacket. But I made them because Bruce has cancer. He loves them. They comfort him. I need the next project to comfort me.

The fact I don’t change myself is what makes me sad, more than some yearning to make something in particular. I despair my own immovability, my own stubborn resistance to self-fulfillment year after year. I don’t want this to sound so self-pitying. It’s not supposed to be self-pitying. I actually wanted to talk about the Black Jacket! 

Ok. What is this? Is it a diary of making and non-making? Because surely making is also preceded and succeeded by non-making. Before I can make in the world I must make in my mind. And if I am disciplined I will describe and sketch. It is not solely a deficiency that my impulse is to go straight to the material. This morning I read a brief description of a designer who draped and cut fabric directly on live models. I wonder if she is the one I read about years ago who used to stick pins in her live models too? That would have been a horrid modeling job. No amount of beauty would have made that cruelty seem justified. I am now questioning that assertion; is there beauty that justifies unnecessary suffering? No. I don’t think so. I think there is a kind of cult of personality that gets created around aesthetic genius of terrific brilliance, artists whose creations are so exquisite and ineffable, that the suffering of another (purposefully constructed as an insufficient, daily-grind, unrealized and unrealizable person), in the service of the designer’s production, is a price we are supposed to be willing to pay individually and as a collectivity. But I don’t think the suffering of others is required for the creation of beauty. I think beauty can be redemptive, should be redemptive. Everyone who participates should be able to lay claim to some benefit.

The Value of Stitches

More about the Little Black Overdress

In my previous post about the Little Black Overdress, I described noticing an impatient feeling while backstitching the gathers of the skirt onto the bodice. I kept thinking – this is taking too long. What disturbed me about that feeling, that thought, is the fact that I really do want to enjoy every stitch. This is a goal. And mostly I enjoy my stitches, which is why that agitation surprised me when I became aware of it, which I almost didn’t. We become used to such back-of-the-mind thoughts. Or at least I imagine I am not the only one who has the experience of gauzy thought-feelings moving behind the surface tension of other more front-of-the-mind thoughts. I have come to think of this sensation as something like clouds moving slowly across the sky, casting shadows on the ground, somewhere else, so we barely notice.

As I mentioned before, I realized I was valuing different stitches differently. My embroidery was the most valuable. My visible seam stitching was next on the list. My pretty interior stitching was third, my invisible stitches were fourth, and my covered up practical stitches – in this case the backstitching to hold the gathers in place and connect the skirt and the bodice, and later covered with a ribbon – came in fifth. As I was reflecting on this hierarchy I saw different aspects of my own labor were starting to relate to the value of women’s labor in global markets, classed labor here in the United States. Fast fashion garment workers’ labor is not valued. If the clothes are disposable, then the labor and materials that created them is viewed as disposable. Even couture seamstresses are referred to as ‘hands.’ My impatience over my backstitches was in this mix.

Here is what I wrote about this in my journal:

May 16, 2021

This image shows the gathering but not the finishing I describe below.

Yesterday I attached the skirt to the bodice, gathering the back stitches worked on the skirt side from left to right, until I got to the straight-stitched section, where I switched to working on the bodice side and continued right to left, which is more comfortable for me.

I trimmed the seam when I was finished.  I would have liked to bind the gathered edge with the bodice seam allowance.  But I didn’t want to stitch on the skirt and I hadn’t left a long enough seam allowance on the bodice side that I could wrap the skirt seam allowance and still have fabric to turn under and stitch in the ditch. So I sewed some of my grey ribbon onto the skirt seam allowance and then top-stitched that on the right side of the bodice so the appearance of the seam is very similar to, but not identical to, the other seam.

I like the way this looks on the front but not on the back.  I can see my stitching line wavers on the ribbon – the black thread stands out on the grey ribbon.  On the right side the stitching line does vary in distance from the first top-stitched line, but that variation is not really noticeable because it’s black thread on black fabric and also because the relationships I’m focusing on – one stitching line in relation to another – are consistent. The ribbon was not as carefully arranged on the back and I was adjusting to a mild fluctuation in the gathering line, which I then supplemented with a lone of top-stitching on the wrong side of the bodice.

Maybe this discussion is not important.  But maybe it is. One of the things I have been thinking about is how Brenda Dayne talks about her projects.  To a great extent her podcast is a discussion, or rather a narration, of her problem-solving.  She charts her decision-making.  She is always tweaking and experimenting. She talks about what she tried, whether it worked. If it didn’t work why not? If it did work, is she happy with the result?

The other thing I have been thinking about is how layered and constant the decision-making is at this stage. I imagine that as I become better at this, that more of what I do, the decisions I make, will become automated (is this right?). I’ll learn techniques that will start to feel natural in their execution. I won’t spend so much time trying to work it out in my mind. Or at least that is my fantasy – that it will get easier and faster.

I just wrote faster and that raises questions for me.  As I have been working on different parts of the Little Black Overdress, I discern a sense of urgency that sometimes emerges for me. I notice that I have had the thought that what I’m doing is taking too long.  The taking-too-long feeling doesn’t come from any external constraint.  It’s not as if I don’t have something else I can wear. There is no deadline. I would like to wear the dress this summer but not yet.  The weather isn’t quite there yet. I am enjoying the sewing.  I am enjoying the embroidery.  I’ve been going back and forth between the two – garment construction to embroidery to garment construction to embroidery again.

This image was taken June 19. 2021, when Brood X of the 17 year Cicadas had hatched and were everywhere, on everything, their collective soughing a soundtrack that was sometimes so loud it drowned out birdsong. Or maybe they just gave up trying to broadcast the boundaries of their territories. In this image you can see that I had thread-traced stitching-lines on the plackets (embroidered to match the cuffs) and the bodice.

The fact that this sensation / anxiety about speed came up alerts me to the cultural bias toward efficient execution. Get it done. It reminds me of my Dickensian Coat, which is so beautiful and deliciously comfortable. David asked me why was I taking so much time to mend a coat?  Wouldn’t it be faster just to buy something new? Wouldn’t it be faster?

Bruce (Instagram: @bruce_falkinburg) asked me the same question about the Little Black Overdress. Wouldn’t it be faster if you sewed it on the machine? Yes. The answer is yes, it would be faster. But I don’t want it to be faster.  Observing the feeling of anxiety, then, is interesting and points out how much work there is to become aware of all the ways this cultural value manifests, and also how to have an intentional response to it.  I don’t think that’s quite right. What I’m trying to think about is the conscious development of a counter-narrative and a personal methodology.

Feelings like this, we are taught, are individual [here you can start to tell I’m an anthropologist].  To the extent they are individual, when you have a feeling that is contrary to the goal, or which even obstructs, you have failed.  There is a moral failure – a lack of discipline, a lack of knowledge. But the feeling is actually cultural. If I seek to change the goal to enjoyment of my stitches over speedy execution of the task, then I have to grapple with the feelings that arise.  I have to make the feelings part of the method.

My contention is that the making itself should be enjoyable. My contention is that slow-making should be enjoyable.  Slowing it down will draw out the enjoyment. But if the cultural value system is that a little dress should not take too much time – after all it’s just a little dress – then slowing down and putting a lot of time into the dress would be anxiety-producing. That which I have posited should be enjoyable, that is slow-making, becomes fraught.

So my personal theory and practice has to include a strategy for re-thinking making, re-feeling making. I need to understand where all of the feelings are coming from.  What are they about? I need to be able to read and interpret the feelings in terms of the economy of waste and haste.

We have elevated being minimally skilled. It is a cultural value to be able to produce something useable/wearable with minimal skill.

As I have been writing, I have been having another parallel line of thought about the fabric I’m using. I thought it was cotton.  But the way it glitters and the way it smells when I iron it, makes me think it could be a cotton/poly mix. I just took a flame to it.  It does not melt. The steady fast burn with a yellow flame and no smoke suggests cotton.  If it does have polyester it’s not much.

Somehow the fiber is making a difference to me. There is a way in which I feel like devoting this much time to a ‘cheap synthetic’ is not justified.  So here I’m bumping up against another prejudice I have to grapple with.
Issue: expense or value of materials
Issue: style of project – what am I making?
Issue: mode of use – where will I wear it?  Is it fancy? Is it for wearing every day?

There are hierarchies of value here that are really old and have been delivered to us historically and culturally and need to be re-worked in order to get to a new place with making.

When I wrote the above, part of me wanted to mock the observation as so obvious as not to require statement. But it does require statement in order to examine it in more depth and figure out how it’s operating here and how to counter the narrative that says that the Little cotton Overdress does not warrant the time I am spending on it.  Are sumptuary laws at play here? Class hierarchies? Race hierarchies? Social evolutionary frameworks?

The value of different kinds of labor. I’m thinking of inexpensive, hand-embroidered cotton things from India. In that instance, the embroidery is rustic, probably executed quickly. The ornamentation is not high-value.  It’s not refined (this has nothing to do with the skill of the embroiderer.  It has to do with the use to which it’s put, the requirements of the buyer, and the compensation for the work). There is a relationship between the value of the labor and the way we value the result of the labor.

I finished the dress in July.

A few final photographs of the finished dress . . .

I am fortunate to work with Bruce on photographs of my makes. This shoot just felt like pure joy. I love wearing the Little Black Overdress: I feel pretty and glamorous. I wear it, now, when I travel because I feel protected. I recently wore it to the theater because I feel stylish. I want everything in my closet to feel like that.

Little Black Overdress

I decided not to buy clothes anymore.

Then I decided to put my sewing machines in storage and only to sew by hand.

The Inspiration – Little White Overdress in Cuba, December 2018

I found the little white voile overdress pictured above in a shop in Cuba in 2018. I have worn it often ever since in the way you see above, over a simple white, gauzy FLAX dress I found at a second-hand shop. The little white overdress is one of my most favorite pieces of clothing. So I decided I wanted another version in black. White, as a color, is vulnerable and the lightness of the voile feels summery, even though the style of the dress does not confine the design to a particular season.

The little white overdress worn in the wild and reflected in the window of a gallery in Porto, Portugal, during a trip with my photographer-friend Bruce Falkinburg. It’s a covert selfie of the two of us. I was also after that message on the gallery wall – “Fuck Art Lets Eat”

I thought about the black version I wanted to make for a long time before I started. At one point I took detailed measurements and plotted them on a drawing, but something else snagged my attention and I wandered off and it took me a long time to wander back.

The next time I approached the project, I started with a decision about material. I have a bolt of crinkly cotton that I got very inexpensively years ago; because I have a lot of it and because it was cheap, it is a low-stakes fabric that I have used before as an alternative to muslin in design experiments for which I needed better drape than muslin offered. In addition to deciding not to buy new clothes, I have decided not to buy new fabric when something in my stash will serve the purpose well. In sum, the crinkly black cotton is black, inexpensive, and I already had it, so the little black overdress would be made in the crinkly black cotton.

Finally, in April after at least a year of intention and deliberation, I traced a pattern from the existing dress, chalked the pieces onto my fabric, pinked them out, pinned, and started sewing – by hand. I did not document my process. The first image I have is from May 5 when I was sitting outside in back of my house gathering the skirt onto the bodice of the dress and feeling like I should post something, anything, to Instagram. In the image below, I had already sewn the bodice and sleeves, attached the sleeves to the bodice, and constructed the skirt. You can see the side seam of the bodice in just about the center of the image. and just above the middle of the left side of the image you can see the seam joining the sleeve to the bodice.

The story this image is trying to tell has to do with the joining of the bodice to the skirt. On the left you can see my thread-tracing on the stitching line of the bodice. Coming from the lower left, you can see where I have basted my skirt gathers and then pinned the skirt onto the bodice.

As I was back-stitching the skirt onto the bodice, I noticed something very interesting. Before I tell you what it was I will give you a little bit of context for why I decided not just to sew my own clothes, but to sew them by hand with a needle and thread.

I have sewn since I was a child. My first projects were dresses I designed and sewed by hand for my dolls, cutting pattern pieces free-hand based on existing shapes and stitching them up with a needle and thread. By the time I was in college I was making almost all of my own clothes using a machine, most of them my own design. I didn’t have any training. I worked intuitively and no doubt did many things wrong by industry standards. But I was only trying to please myself, to make things I wanted to wear.

After college I got a job stitching in the costume shop at the Arena Stage Repertory Theater in Washington, DC. There I learned to flat pattern and began to learn couture sewing techniques. I loved the long days of sitting at big tables sewing by hand, talking to the other women in the costume shop. We only sewed long seams on the machine. Everything else was done with needle and thread. During a brief gap in between shows when we had finished checking the costume archive for moth damage, I made a sloper for myself and took a first pass at my perfect jacket. I’m including a recent picture of myself in that jacket below. It still fits well and feels pretty incredible to put on (and I need an image to break up this post lest you stop reading!).

These photographs are by my dear friend and collaborator Bruce Falkinburg (Instagram: @bruce_falkinburg) and were taken in his amazing studio. He was practicing lighting configurations on me and I got some pretty terrific shots of this jacket out of his experiment. (Please ignore the folds; I hadn’t gotten it out of the closet in a long time and didn’t get it pressed before the shoot.)

I did not succeed in making my perfect jacket, though at the time I felt it was closer than I do now. The armscye is too big and the sleeve cap too tall for what I want now. There are no drag lines when I stand with my arms down. But I want better range of motion without distorting the body of the jacket and changing the feeling of the bodice.

I didn’t stay much longer after this jacket at the costume shop. Arena didn’t pay well enough for me to support myself so I got another job. But I kept sewing, went to graduate school in Anthropology, stopped sewing, started chain-stitch embroidering during a post-doctoral fellowship in Australia, kept embroidering after leaving academia until arthritis made it too painful. Now, 30 years later, I am returning to this long-neglected passion for hand-sewing, having forgotten many things. At the same time I am rekindling my embroidering, having largely resolved the pain of arthritis by shifting to a non-inflammatory, plant-based diet.

In so many ways I feel I am starting again at the beginning. I often think – I don’t know how to do this! And then I tell myself, usually saying it out loud – Ok, Laura, so you don’t know how to do it. Do it anyway.

I love to sew. But I don’t want a lot of things. Sewing by machine, then, is too fast for me, my me-made equivalent of fast fashion. If I want to exercise my passion in an on-going manner, I will produce too much, outpacing my need. My production becomes consumption. My making suddenly bleeds into waste and I don’t want to create waste. I don’t want to consume more than I need. I don’t want to participate in fast fashion. I don’t want to make things and then question whether I should have. I don’t want to feel crushed that I have cut into fabric too hastily.

And I find working with a needle and thread to be meditative, contemplative, pleasurable, good for thinking. To me, sewing garments I design for myself, that fit my body and are creative expressions that emerge from my life and reach toward the life I want to have, represents a poetics of intention. It’s slow. And I want it to be slow. I want to sew because I love to sew. I want every stitch to be pleasurable. I want the making to be a slow and emergent joy in the practice that starts with the idea, changes into a new kind of sensuous appreciation at that first wearing of the final garment and is renewed and extended every time I put it on.

So what to make of the fact that, when I was backstitching the gathers of the skirt to join them to the bodice, I felt impatient? I noticed the feeling and, as I mentioned above, thought – now that’s interesting. What is that about? I realized I was valuing different stitches differently . . .

In a dream I decided to stitch a mile

Early this morning I had a dream in which I made the decision to hand stitch a mile, piecing together scraps to raise awareness about waste, about the need for us to re-claim not only material, but skills we have slowly surrendered, as a culture and as an economy, over the past century or so.  The idea is in the genre of efforts like walking across the United States, or sailing across the ocean, to call attention to a problem.  Of course this is smaller, domestic, and it can contribute to the problem it’s seeking to mitigate.

In the dream, the project was specific.  I decided to Stitch an American Mile.  The American was important.  I’m not sure why, exactly, except that I am here, in the United States.  Others could choose to re-claim material and re-claim skills in a similar manner in other places, and decide to join me in stitching a mile by hand and documenting that distance.

As I worked on the idea in the dream I rejected the notion of creating a pieced example of stitching that is a mile long.  While that would be interesting, I have no room in my house for over 5000 feet of material.  And there would be no utility unless it were to become an installation somewhere.  For my purposes, that approach, itself, would be wasteful, one of those moments when consumption masquerades as production.

I went in a different direction and conceived the idea of making vegan shawl cuffs from strips of cotton jersey scraps hand-sewn together.  The dream-plan went like this: I would measure my progress along this mile by making 12×12 inch panels with unidirectional lines of stitching so I could document the squares, count the number of feet of stitching, and then indicate, on each cuff, where I was in the mile when I made that cuff.  It would be the very slowest mile I have ever traveled.