Raveled Threads

I never took up knitting needles again after that, casting off my knitting career at its peak. But my fascination with threads — their colors and textures — intensified.

While the violence in Vietnam and at Kent State raged on our black-and-white TV, I studied books on crewel embroidery, became adept
at dozens of stitches…

Settled in Phoenix, my husband and I befriended a couple of artists, potters, who expanded my notions of fabric art. Embroidery didn’t have to be confined to a small metal hoop — a length of fabric could take over a whole wall, like a painting. While Larry used the second bedroom of our apartment for his woodworking projects, I threaded big-eyed needles with thick, bright wools and shaped oversized flowers rising from strong stems. I finally finished my B.A., with honors, at Arizona State in Tempe, and was teaching high school English, discovering e.e. cummings along with my students. I began writing regularly — bits, threads of thoughts I jotted at night and between classes.

By the time Larry and I moved to Berkeley in the late sixties, my stitched designs were stretching to the borders of wide swaths of burlap. Abstract patterns of seed heads, grasses, branches hung on our walls. I also brightened our living room sofa by embroidering pillow covers. While the violence in Vietnam and at Kent State raged on our black-and-white TV, I studied books on crewel embroidery, became adept at dozens of stitches, not just satin and chain, but herringbone and wheat ear, Romanian and Pekinese.

At the school where I taught in West Berkeley, knife fights erupted daily, bombs were confiscated from lockers, and students overdosing by the railroad tracks were hauled away in ambulances. Sometimes we never saw them again, their brains fried. Tear gas polluted Telegraph Avenue as the National Guard circled their helicopters overhead. Black Muslims, Black Panthers, encounter groups, anti-war demonstrations. Thread by thread, the old order unraveled.

Fringes. Ponchos, moccasins, strings of beads. Let your hair down, let it all hang out. But Larry made fun of Judy Collins and Bob Dylan, wouldn’t listen to The Who. He was already over thirty, four years older than I, an age gap that felt like a decade, as kaleidoscopic and psychedelic patterns swirled in the air like fog spiraling through the Golden Gate. At times, as it is with heavy fog, it was hard to see where you were going.

If regions, races, sexes, and even generations were clashing all around me, then perhaps I could weave them together, construct a fabric that included us all.

Sometimes I felt as though I’d been dropped into a labyrinth with nothing to lead me out. A beguiling labyrinth, true, but confusing and exhausting. Tall, slim, and blond, I was suspect by many simply because of my coloring, and sexual target for many, also because of my coloring. I indulged in a torrid interracial affair. Larry spent his evenings in rehearsals, increasingly involved with his students.

The pillowcases’ fabric I had embroidered began to fray and tear — I hadn’t known you needed to use good quality linen. I learned that from Helen Roller, the remedial reading specialist at our school. Helen’s unruly gray hair coiled under a comb at the back of her head; her comfortable breasts and shoulders rounded her hand-woven shawls. She knew about berries for dye. And looms. She encouraged me to weave. While giving me pointers on enticing recalcitrant fourteen-year-old boys to read, she took me under her wing. Like a soft-feathered hen with a new chick, she brought me yarns, how-to books, signed me up for classes.

I wove on backstrap looms, pulling woof threads through the warp in colors no one would have thought could lie together, colors of Northeast and Southwest, and of the Pacific coast, palest pastels, blackest indigo, and dazzling neons. If regions, races, sexes, and even generations were clashing all around me, then perhaps I could weave them together, construct a fabric that included us all.

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