The relentless pursuit of (im)perfection.
Last week, I was at the Craftstitute hanging up some class samples before a meeting. One of the indigo skeins I dyed had tangled in the dyebath. I screwed up. In tying the skein so that it could spread out in the vat, so that the dye would be even, I gave it too much space. It took advantage of the situation as it was drawn from the dye bath, cured, acidified, washed, and rinsed…
It took me almost 45 minutes to tame the massive snarl. For a while there, I had half of it on one umbrella swift, half on the other. Meanwhile I was winding a ball from the hind end in an attempt to reach the tangle that had occurred—you guessed it—in the middle of it all. I was standing there, yarn dripping from every surface, thinking: This. This is the moment that someone will show up asking about our classes and see my skein-winding adventures.
Nobody did. It’s unfortunate. It would have been pretty funny.
People in many cultures believe in including errors in their work to acknowledge their imperfection. It shows up all over the world: in Islamic art the geometry is sometimes skewed or a flower in a rug will be a different color; Navajo beadwork includes an odd bead and rugs have holes and slits for evil spirits to exit and good to enter; there is a Japanese Zen concept that an acknowledged mistake frees you from perfection; and then the "humility block " in the American pioneer quilt and the Shaker “humble stitch.”
Some say this is urban legend. Whether the “humble stitch” developed as an acknowledgement of the perfection of the deities of these various religions, and therefore our inability as humans to compete with deities -- or as a way to explain “errors” to picky royalty and collectors -- is a matter of some debate. It may even have resulted from having to make do - that yellow scrap in the corner was simply all that was available. Either way, I like the idea.
One thing I am sure of is that without mistakes there is no progress.
Mistakes can be wonderful surprises. Acknowledging that nothing I make will be perfect gives me freedom to try new things. Mistakes and inconsistencies give a human feel to an object that might otherwise seem blank and machine-made. I love a quirky line or a spot of unexpected color, it feels like the person who made the object is winking at me and saying, "Hey, thanks for taking the time to notice." Mistakes show that we are capable of learning, and the creativity it takes to reroute our errors sometimes gives us new insight into design or technique.
I often see hangtags on slubby and hand-dyed garments, which say something like "The variations in this garment are due to its hand-crafted nature." -- We expect machine-like perfection in what we buy in a store, and anything unexpected or uneven is perceived as a problem -- Does this frighten people away from trying to make things for themselves?
Unfortunately, the only insight I gained from my epic skein snarl was the following: yarn, like my kids, needs boundaries or else it gets all tangled up.