Embracing Failure: the Magic Carpet Bag’s Challenge to Think Creatively

I have been confronted by a problem that has stymied me and delayed the next installment in the Magic Carpet Bag tutorial as I have been trying to figure out what to do. I finished stabilizing the textile with the muslin interlining. Following that process I stitched buckram into the bag to give it body and stiffness.

cutting the buckram to size
Cutting the buckram to size for the bag body

When I first started, it looked like it would work brilliantly. I had pinned the buckram to the inside of the bag with safety pins, same as the muslin.

Image 2 - putting the bag over a box and pinning the buckram to the bag body
Placing the carpet bag body, inside out, on a box and then safety pinning the entire layer of buckram to the bag body (excepting the bag bottom).
image 3 - pinng
Pinning on the box ensured that I connected the buckram to the bag body with twisting or distortion.

The bag stood up on its own. Fabulous! This was the precise behavior I was going for. I then attached the buckram to the textile with long basting stitches so that the buckram and the textile would act as one piece of material in the same manner as the muslin.

image 4 - securing the edges at the side seam
Basting stitches at the side seam to secure the edge of the buckram.

 

image 6 - catching 1 weft thread on the outside so the basting stictches are invisible on the exterior
The basting stitches are long on the interior of the bag and catch only 1 weft thread on the front of the bag so they are invisible.
zig zag baste
Basting in a zig zag covers more ground with one row of stitches.

As I worked on the bag in this way I found that the buckram softened up and became more supple. When I finished, the bag no longer stood up on its own. It just slumped.

slump 1
The Magic Carpet Slump

I have been trying to figure out what to do about the bag’s slumping ever since inserting the buckram in order to write the next steps in the tutorial. Then a serendipitous conversation happened and a colleague to whom I was describing this dilemma asked – why not share the challenge you have encountered?

It had not occurred to me to narrate the problem. I am working through this tutorial on the hoof. You are getting my process almost in real time, and that process includes this disruption in my expectations for how the Carpet Bag would work. This disruption has raised a whole series of questions for me. My first response was to think about the bag’s behavior as my failure: my approach to stiffening didn’t work. I obviously used the wrong material. What do I do now? Because I didn’t have ready answers, the Carpet Bag has languished in a soft slump.

But I can tell myself a different story about the Carpet Bag and ask different questions. When the young people I work with in my studio encounter a new task demanding new skills, they have the tendency to say – “I’m no good at that. I always mess things up.” I have forbidden this script in my studio and substituted an alternative script. Instead of “I’m no good at that.” I have instructed them to say “Wow, that is a technique I have never done before. Instead of “I’m no good at that.” I have offered the alternative script “I’m looking forward to building that skill.” They won’t actually say it despite my coaxing. They’re too cool for that. But I have seen a change in attitude that I think indicates they have internalized the message that never having done something before does not constitute bad skill. It just indicates no skill yet. It indicates an exciting journey not yet begun.

I now realized that, in response to my Magic Carpet Bag’s very unmagical slumping, I have been guilty of the “I’m no good at that” mindset I have tried to exorcise from my young students’ thinking. Instead, I am now choosing to see the Carpet Bag’s slump as an opportunity to think more expansively about what I expect from this bag and to respond to its characteristics in creative ways. Rather than view the bag’s behavior as my failure, I can view the bag’s behavior as an invitation to find success in an unanticipated guise. What am I going to do now? This becomes not a defeating question but an exciting one. How do I approach this design opportunity? What are my options? Which of them will I pursue?

slump 3

As I have begun to change my thinking, I realize that the potential next steps I have rolled around in my mind as I have looked at the Magic Carpet Slump on a daily basis are all still assuming that I am grappling with the bag’s bad behavior which I have viewed as representing my failure. In this view, slumping is bad; I need to rectify the slump with a better stiffener approach – plastic mesh, another type of synthetic, non-woven stiffener, a stiff haircell leather lining, a stiff canvas lining, boning at the side seams, cardboard in the bag bottom, etc.

But what if I decide slumping is not bad? What if I decide that a soft bag is an excellent bag? What if I surrender to the characteristics of this particular textile, which is not stiff but rather heavy with beautiful drape. Upon reflection, I suspect stiffness in this bag would elude me without extreme interventions. It would get heavier and heavier as I added material to combat its resistance. It could easily become a Sisyphusean task that no one wants to live through by way of a tutorial, and I wouldn’t want to be the one to try to execute tasks the bag wouldn’t cooperate with. I don’t want to set myself up to give up. Our projects have to match us, our temperaments, our styles of learning and work.  A Sisyphusean Magic Slump does not match me.

slump 4
The buckram, which is visible inside the bag, has given it more body and strength, but no stiffness.

I began my Magic Carpet Bag project loving the social story of household use we can discern and imagine in the textile’s damage, celebrating its handmade-ness, preserving it. I carefully married the weaving to its interlining weft thread by weft thread. Adding the buckram gave it more body and strength, but not the stiffness I sought, and there my acceptance and excitement faltered.

If I choose to accept the Slump’s slump and to see its heavy drape, like it’s damage, as its beauty rather than its deficit, the next step in this tutorial is a combination of two things – discernment and order of operations. I’ll save order of operations for the next tutorial and just tackle discernment here. What I mean by discernment is charting the next steps in alignment with the project’s acknowledged characteristics. What does it want to be and do, and how do I work with that as I make the next series of necessary choices – lining material, closure type, handle treatment? Given what the bag wants to be and do, what is my range of options for making it mine?

Each of you, whether you are working with a handmade textile, a felted or fulled bag body, or some other found or handmade fabric out of which you have begun your Magic Carpet Bag, will need to recognize how your bag is behaving and figure out what materials and processes will work with that behavior. If you have a stiff fabric, you won’t necessarily need or want a stiff material for a lining but you may.  Figure it out using visualization – imagining the bag in use, on your body, in your space – and simulation – by pinning different lining fabrics into your bag body and observing how the materials behave together and whether that behavior supports your vision. If you have a soft fabric, a stiffer lining will give it a bit more body and strength while a soft lining will retain the sensuality and hand-feel of the bag body. If your material is heavy like mine, stiffening may prove more trouble than it’s worth. If your material has alot of drape, that you really love, then choose a lining with drape rather than body so the drape of the finished bag retains the characteristics you enjoy so much.

As for my Magic Carpet Bag, I’m going to take another stab at stiffener but reserve it for the bag bottom, the most vulnerable part of the textile. The buckram I put into the bag body I have not yet extended to the bag bottom.  I plan to try 2 or 3 layers.  I don’t expect this to give it stiffness, but rather a bit of shape and greater strength.  I have also decided to try out a lining of some tightly woven, thick, unbleached canvas I have in the studio. It’s not stiff but it’s also not soft. It’s somewhere in the middle. It will not make the bag stand up. The bag will still slump. But it will be strong enough to withstand puncture by pencils or knitting needles and will not herniate in the existing areas of damage when the bag is full.

buckram on the sides only
You can see that the buckram I put on the bag was only wide enough for the sides of the bag. The bag bottom still needs help.

What else do I already know? I will use a zipper as a closure and I plan on using two 16 inch Forager flat strap handles in the middle of the bag, one on each side of the bag opening.  And I will use a Sling flat strap handle with tabs at the two ends of the bag.

sling handle with tabs
Here is the Sling Handle with Tabs that I want to put on the two ends of the bag at the side seams.  Because the tabs straddle the side seam, I can achieve a centered handle.

In what order will I do these steps?

Next post – order of operations.

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Embracing Failure: The Magic Carpet Bag's Challenge to Think Creatively - hand sewing a bag inspired by a kilim rug on the JUL Designs blog

Hunting Inspiration for New Designs in Andalusia, Spain: Traveling With My Son on the Eve of Becoming an Empty-nester

I was in southern Spain with my son Julian for 10 days, starting on the 16th of August.  My son is now 20 and I have just delivered him to the California College of the Arts.  We got off the plane from Spain on the evening of the 26th and got back on a plane for California early on the 27th. With the help of a friend living in California, I moved Julian into his housing that afternoon and now I am an empty-nester.  As a single mother for the entirety of his life, this represents a significant adjustment. I have no idea yet what the texture of that adjustment will be like. As a result of the timing, this trip with Julian to Spain has taken on a significance I am sure you can empathize with, even if you are not facing or have not faced this particular life-change.

Julian photographing Alcazar

Image above: Julian photographing the ornamentation on a door in Alcazar in Seville, Spain.

The purpose of the trip was originally just business – to hunt inspiration for new JUL designs, both knitwear jewelry and accessories as well as the new line of body jewelry I am now developing.  I had to change the dates of the trip from April to August in order to participate in 10,000 Small Businesses.  I invited Julian to accompany me as a way to mark his departure from my home and his entry into a new phase of his life.  As Julian is an amazing young designer, (headed off to study Industrial Design), working with him on a new jewelry collection (or collections), based on Moorish architecture and ornamentation in southern Spain, was a perfect collaboration – a project we could work on together, the product(s) of which will be artifacts of this special time.

You will see them in the coming year.

Here are some examples of the shapes and motifs we encountered and which will be our inspiration and source material as we develop designs together.

Mezquita small file arches upon arches small file

Image above: Mezquita in Cordoba, Spain.

My son and I became fascinated by the Mezquita in Cordoba for several reasons.  The building is massive, built on a site that had seen other religious structures for centuries. The exterior of the building is simple, high stone walls with massive reinforced doors.  It looks like a fortification. The interior is astonishing.  The columns and arches you see above just seem to recede to the horizon, creating a sense of magnificent, awe-inspiring infinity.

The columns that you see, which at first appear uniform, are varied in material and form, the cornices sometimes corinthian, based on the curving, elegant lobed leaves of the Acanthus plant. But some of the cornices are much simpler, depicting very different carvings and motifs. This variation impressed upon us the history of cultural and religious transformations that happened on this spot, and the ancient salvaging and repurposing that happened each time there was a change.  Why not use what was already there to create your own very different statement about the shape of the cosmos and the relationship between humans and the divine?

Mezquita churchy dome

Image above: Mezquita in Cordoba, Spain.

Much of the ceiling in the Mosque were flat, carved and painted wood.  By contrast, some parts of the ceiling opened up into astonishing and exquisitely ornate domes upon domes that are breath-taking. This combination of arches with areas of flat and carved and painted wooden panels making up the ceiling was dramatic and fascinating.

Mezquita with gold details small file

Image above: Mezquita in Cordoba, Spain.

The repurposing and transformation in ideas about the universe is so gloriously represented in the combination of Islamic and Christian shapes and designs in the Mezquita’s interior.  How surprising and spectacular that inside the Mosque, Catholics built a church!

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Image above: One of the Christian areas that made up the church within the Mezquita in Cordoba, Spain.

Mezquita carved door detail small file

Image above: Mezquita in Cordoba, Spain.

Here you see carved motifs based on the Acanthus leaf, a form that recurs in Roman, Islamic, and Christian ornament over and over.  The Acanthus plant is one of those plants that has an unusual range of powerful uses for early peoples and so it shows up again and again in recognition of its potency as well as the beauty of its form.

Alcazar big wall and doorways small file

Image above: Alcazar in Seville, Spain.

The Alcazar in Seville is absolutely stunning and was the first of these Moorish buildings that Julian and I visited.  The scale is smaller than the Mezquita as it was a residence.  Its carvings are elaborately painted as they were at the time when the palace was built.  In this way the experience of the space is very different from that of the Palace of the Nazaries in the Alhambra complex in Granada where the carvings are without color.  While the Palace of the Nazaries allows you to see the naked motifs clearly, the Alcazar offers a different kind of impression and visual power – inspiring with the ornamental carving, the exquisite combinations of one color and another, and color in relation to the ornaments it adorns.  I just wept at its beauty and I wept at the fact that I had the precious opportunity to experience such a place with my son.

Alcazar colored doorway small file

Image above: Alcazar in Seville, Spain.

Alcazar doorway detail small file

Image above: Alcazar in Seville, Spain.

The gorgeousness of these spaces is amazing and becomes even more so when you abstract the ornament using frames – as in a camera or cellphone – that isolate particular relationships between the ornamentation and architectural form.  What we isolate in the frame is closer to the way we focus our eyes on specific juxtapositions we find fascinating and beautiful. And these juxtapositions are far more complex and varied, and personal, than the vistas in the photo book of the place.

I discovered on this trip how similar my son’s ‘eye’ is to mine. We frequently chose the same juxtapositions to photograph, though one or the other of us might execute it better.

How gratifying is that, to see your values and all of the lessons in being a person and viewing the world through a lens of art and design emerge, distinct and personalized, in your child after 20 years of eldering and asking “where does your eye go?”

Anti-selfie Selfie

Image above: Julian’s and my anti-selfie selfie at Medina Al Zahara, Cordoba, Spain: we are not blocking the view of the monument!

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Image above: Julian and me at Medina Al Zahara, Cordoba, Spain.  We just can’t seem to produce a conventional selfie no matter how hard we try!  Here Julian caught me rubbing my eyes.  I find it funny that it looks like I am covering my eyes so as not to see something.  So not the case!

And we have not yet gotten to the Alhambra part of the journey . . .

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Hunting Inspiration for New Designs in Andalusia, Span with JUL Designs