The various traditions and styles of handweaving found across the island of Sardinia have important lessons to teach us, lessons that reach beyond the art and craft of handweaving and into the modern world.
On this Mediterranean island roughly the size of Vermont, the tradition of handweaving is legendary. The weavings of Samugheo are arguably the most distinctive: Pibiones, or small bumps of thread creating a raised design on a textile’s surface, are traditional. The weavings of Nule and Aggius, both towns with strong textile traditions, differ in their design and somewhat in their creation. Each of these towns is respected within Sardinia for its unique style of weaving, yet the motifs and techniques characteristic of each town are echoed in the textiles of distant cultures and countries.
When I present Sardinian textiles outside the island, weavers and collectors sometimes see hints of these similarities. The pibiones of Samugheo somewhat resemble boules created by Acadian weavers. The weavings of Nule often incorporate designs similar to textiles made by Native Americans from the Southwest United States and Mexico. The designs of Aggius resemble motifs found in weavings of Poland and Lithuania. The list continues, as the similarities between textiles of different lands are sometimes more apparent than the similarities of textiles from within different areas of Sardinia.
While it’s interesting to ponder the threads of influence strung between geographic regions and traditional cultures across the globe, what I find more striking is something simple yet too often discounted: Whether we talk of languages, architecture, the arts in general, handweaving specifically, or any aspect of this tapestry we call humanity, the origins, influences, techniques, and motifs are interwoven and interdependent.
And in any textile, not one single thread can be tensed, damaged, or removed without changing the integrity of the textile as a whole.
Join me live online for an intimate series of presentations about Sardinian handwoven textiles, the women who maintain nearly-lost weaving traditions, and more!
In this free series, I’ll be sharing my stories, videos, and photos of the women weavers and their distinctive textiles; showing weavings from my own collection; discussing the history and revival of Sardinian handweaving; providing a historical and cultural overview of Sardinia; giving you a photographic tour of the island; answering your questions; and more!
This series starts Saturday January 23, 2021. See the full schedule below.
If you have missed earlier sessions, you can still come to later sessions!
My favorite way to illustrate this stems from design school. Back in a time when we drew straight lines by hand using T-squares, triangles, and Rapidograph pens, we used a simple exercise to demonstrate that absolute care, attention, and precision was necessary in creating the very first to the very last element of a project.
Think of drawing horizontal lines on a piece of paper to emulate a 8.5″ x 10″ sheet of notebook paper, which generally has about 32 lines. If you were to draw the lines by hand, you would start from the bottom of the page, draw a base line, use that line to align and draw the line above it, and then use the newly-drawn line to align and draw the line above it, continuing this process until all lines on the page are complete.
If the very first line you drew was off level by 1/32 of an inch — the width of a fine pen nib — your design would be ruined: by the top of the page, after repeating the 1/32 inch error 32 times, your top line would be tilted one inch.
Now think of an architect guiding the construction of a skyscraper a hundred stories high, and the precision with which the foundation must be laid. Consider a handweaver making a bedspread that requires weaving thousands of crosswise weft-fibers, and the careful alignment necessary for the first row, and every row, of fibers. Think of the navigators, mathematicians, and engineers calculating courses for ships traveling oceans, skies, universes, and how the initial degree, minute, and second of direction must be absolutely precise, and then checked and corrected constantly to ensure the ship reaches the intended destination. The tiniest bit of imprecision — or an unseen factor affecting calculations or the project — would drastically change the outcome.*
Simply put, the tiniest detail affects the outcome in ways we can’t imagine.
This is true within and beyond architecture, construction, navigation, sciences, arts, and crafts. This is true in everything — and for everyone. This is true for presidents, prime ministers, actors, sports figures, scientists, saints, mystics, people of fame — and each and every one of us.
Each one of us affects the whole. And each of our actions affects the whole.
This can be staggering to consider — yet this realization is also a gift, a blessing.
If each of us, each of our actions, each of our interactions, each of our words affect the whole, affects our world, how do we watch, use, care for our actions, our words, and that which we contribute to our world?
Do we, in our personal spheres and work, act with disregard, condescension, hatred, and anger, spewing toxic dark clouds of negativity that increase with time and distance to create chaos, war, and destruction on a global scale?
Or do we bring awareness, compassion, love, and care for small things into the tiny moments of our daily lives, filling what we touch with light, harmony, and joy — all of which increase with time and distance to create a world more beautiful, inclusive, harmonious, and supportive that we can perhaps imagine?
When we realize that we’re all connected and that each one of us contributes to the creation of the world we share, I believe we have the responsibility to act upon that realization: to live with love, act with compassion, care for small things, and give attention to the tiny moments of life.
If the tiny things are cared for, if small acts are done with love and kindness, if we bring joy to our work, if we treat people, animals, plants, nature with compassion — imagine how the results would — will — magnify.
Can we each play our part, no matter how small it seems, to help the world change for good, beyond what we can imagine?
I think of those so often invisible in our modern world, and what they bring to us. Living and working with care, compassion, love, and awareness are mystics, mothers, artists, and others, including handweavers.
Women weaving in the hills of Sardinia; rebozo weavers and lace-makers in Oaxaca and Teotihuacan; Native Americans weaving in the Southwestern U.S.A; rug-makers weaving in the Middle East; sari-weavers in India; and others comprising the dwindling numbers of handweavers: All are working with care, focus, and attention, placing and aligning each fiber of every textile they weave.
Beautiful textiles are the visible, tangible result of the precision and care handweavers bring to their work.
But what are the invisible, intangible results?
Perhaps the fragile balance of our world is subtly maintained by the magnified effect of the order, precision, care, and love the handweavers bring to their work.
Who’s to say otherwise?
*Professor Edward Lorenz famously discussed how small acts — the change of a single variable in a set of conditions — would be magnified over time and distance and thus change outcomes. This has become known as the “butterfly effect”, simply stated as a butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world could cause a typhoon on the other side of the world.
I think often of handmade gifts and items that are constructed by hand.
In an era replete with an overabundance of machine-made, ready-to-go, disposable stuff, many people don’t think about handmade items or their value, which is a value that extends beyond a dollar amount or shelf-life longevity. The unquantifiable value factor is human: The value is in and of the makers as well as the receivers of the handmade.
Creating handmade items requires a great deal of time and much consideration. Many handmade gifts, of clothing especially, are created for a specific person. Such handmade items are highly prized not only because they are made and stitched “to measure” — a time-consuming and skillful process — but because, when you understand the process of making a handmade item, say a shirt, you realize the time and the consideration required to make the item. Making a shirt demands good project planning skills to manage the many steps: the purchasing or making of component pieces (the fabric, thread, buttons, interfacing, and related); the acquisition and maintenance of the necessary tools (sewing machine, needles, scissors, table, and so forth); the taking of the recipient’s measurements, and more. Of course, making a shirt also necessitates the craft or artistic skills and engineering ability necessary to make the item, plus time: setting aside the hours necessary to complete all the steps of cutting, matching, sewing, and applying details to finish a shirt.
Yes, handmade items are an expression of the maker’s mastery of their particular craft, and handmade gifts are a demonstration of the maker’s love and consideration of the person to whom the gift is given. The gift given is not just the item: the gift is the time, thoughts, and love of the maker.
This consideration and love, as well as the attitude of the maker are present in every fiber and every stitch of the item. Especially while making a gift — during the hours, days, and perhaps weeks and months required to create an item — the maker would have thought often of the recipient, imagining how the recipient would use and appreciate the item. The concept that the thoughts of a maker imparted corresponding qualities into an object was commonly understood in many traditional cultures; hence the stories of women weaving, spinning, or stitching thoughts of joy, contentment, and abundance into a textile.
The type of handmade item does not matter: whether a shirt, rug, ceramic mug, carved wooden toy, poem, painting, a plate of cookies, or a home-cooked meal, the thoughts, attitudes, and qualities of the maker pass into the very substance of that which they create.
Realizing this, we begin to understand what we as individuals and as a society lack when we no longer have handmade items as a component of what we touch, feel, wear, and eat in our everyday lives.
May we all consciously put love, care, and attention into all we create, so that our creations carry these as offerings to the world.
Even if we are not creating a tangible object to gift to another, the gift itself may be as simple as a word, a glance, or a hug that transmits our love and caring.
I love talking about this vegetable, both because of my introduction to it, and because of how well I believe it represents characteristic Sardinian traits of fortitude, hardiness, patience, and transforming what seems daunting and difficult — be it situations, people, or things — into a result that is beautiful, thoughtful, and golden.
I first encountered this preserved vegetable during an early visit to the island. I was in Samugheo and eating dinner with Susanna, Isa, and the extended family — Angelina, Anna, Tiziana, and Cri — and they offered me some of this vegetable, obviously locally grown, carefully picked, and lovingly prepared. I had come to learn that Angelina, Susanna’s sister, was the cook and gardener for the family, and most if not all of the vegetables presented at the table were grown and/or preserved by Angelina’s strong and graceful hands.
Isa offered me an open jar of this preserved vegetable, and — as is characteristic of me — I put a generous portion on my plate despite not knowing what the vegetable was. As I tasted the it, I wondered: Lotus root? No, none of the little seeds, and there were no ponds here where lotus would grow. Okra? No, not the right taste or consistency. Celery? This seemed a bit tougher than celery, and had a open center channel not common to celery, and it didn’t really taste like celery — but I could not think of what else it might be, and I’m pretty good at “name that vegetable.” I convinced myself that it was just a different type of celery, that the olive oil in which it was preserved masked some of the taste, and happily munched.
“Ti piace?” Isa gestured towards the jar, asking me if I liked the vegetable.
I nodded. “Si. E’ sedano?” Yes. Is it celery?
“Cardo? Non lo so cardo. . .” I didn’t know what cardo was, and a quick check of the limited Italian dictionary I had on my phone at that time didn’t yield any results.
Isa tried to describe cardo to me, saying it grew everywhere, wild. I think she was a bit bewildered that I didn’t know what this vegetable was, as it was obviously so common. Rising, she walked over to her computer, googled, and pointed to the photo now displayed on the screen.
“Ah!” I said. “Si chiama thistle in inglese! Abbiamo cardo nelle colline e nei giardini da California, anche fuori casa mia! Ma non lo mangiamo!”
Yes, we have thistle in the hills around San Francisco, even outside my house — we just don’t eat thistle!
I was imagining harvesting the plant — ouch — and peeling the spiny stalks — ouch again — before cutting the stalk-hearts and soaking them in oil. It seems a bit. . . intimidating. I keep thinking I’ll harvest a stalk or two of California’s wild thistle when the season’s right, but I haven’t yet, and it’s been some years.
Fortitude, hardiness, patience, and transforming what seems daunting and difficult into a result that is beautiful, thoughtful, and golden: I have seen the women of Sardinia do this with everything — no matter how thorny!
In Sardinia, handweaving is an ancient and revered art, one so complex and magical that legends say the Jana (fairies) taught Sardinian women how to construct looms and weave.
The version below is translated from the story as written by Bruna Cossu and posted on her Facebook page Brujana. With her permission, I’ve translated her words and posted both the English and Italian versions on this website.
Once upon a time, an eternal god was flying through infinity. The god was omnipotent yet also very bored. It seemed to him that the greatest happiness would be to have desires. He began to search for Earth and humans, because he knew that humans were the best suited to dream the impossible.
However, once he found Earth, he discovered that humans had not learned to dream. The planet’s population was like a swarm of ants: the men fought amongst themselves and sought to complicate their lives in all ways, yet they had not learned to dream. They did everything except dream.
Then the god, determined, said: “I will be the first man to dream”. He searched all over the earth for an uninhabited place where he could live alone, and he found it in a small island in the the shape of a footprint: Sardinia. This island was still wild, full of rocks. The god concentrated and made himself into a man, but he chose to make himself old, because in order to have desires, he would have to make effort.
On the island, he had at his disposal stones, cork trees, and a swarm of bees that followed him everywhere. Understanding the nature of what he had available, he assembled it: With simple human arms, he constructed the first hive, thus solving the issue of hunger.
One day, while sleeping, the god was disturbed by a bee. With an involuntary swipe of his hand, he shooed away the bee. However, in doing so, the god let fly a spark of divine power. In one instant, the entire hive was transformed into a group of incredibly small goddesses: The Janas were born.
These Janas occupied the human dimension by pretending to be women — and being prophets by nature, they knew that human women would soon arrive on the island. In the meantime, the Janas dug houses out of the rocks and furnished them, always play-pretending at being women in the same way young girls play at being women.
One day, the first human ship arrived on the horizon, from an uncertain location, and bearing an unknown people. It was a rude group, wild, a bunch of warriors. The Janas immediately became interested in the women and flew among their heads, convincing them to leave the heavy work to the men.
In this way, women finally entered the world of the Janas, where the women learned to spin and to weave at looms prepared by the fairies who had been bees — fairies who had an innate, genetic understanding of geometry, and who constructed looms with extreme rigor and precision. And the women themselves brought an essential quality: Patience. Working together, the rigor of the Janas and the patience of the women fostered the ideal conditions for the birth of creativity.
And so was the beginning of how Sardinian women came to weave their rhythmic, symbolic textiles, weaving even today as they did then.
Note: Sardinia’s tessitrici artigianali — the women weavers who work by hand in the old ways — are truly extraordinary, and rare. Only a handful remain working as professionals on the island. Learn more about these unique, independent, and wonderful women on the Sardinian Arts page Meet the Artists, which is a portal to their work and contact information.
Sardinia is where I feel most at home on this planet: I melt into the land, the sea, and myself. Friends see this, and, like others, they’re mystified, as my genetic heritage is obviously not Sardinian, or even Italian.
“What drew you to Sardinia? What drew you to the weavers? What’s your connection?”
I hear these questions often, and the answer is simple — and not.
The short answer is “Good fortune, synchronicity, karma, and grace.”
The long answer, of course, is more complex, bringing together events of many times and places.
Long-ago events form the foundation (or warp, to use weaving terminology) of the story, completed by more recent story-threads (the weft) .
More weft-stories have been woven; I will write them some time!
The Warp (Foundation) of the Story
When I was a kid, my parents loved to travel, explore, and meet new people, and our summer drives across the United States fostered my own appetite for adventure, desire to travel, and sense that I would someday live outside the US.
My mom, also adventurous and inquisitive, was resourceful, smart, and had what I call a genetic predisposition to design and engineering, which both my brother and I inherited. She could — and did — design, make, and/or fix pretty much anything and everything. She had worked as a layout artist before we kids came along, and afterwards, her love of sewing and the articles she created were the most common expression of her talents. She made most of her own clothes, many of mine, and upholstered, refinished, and transformed furniture. While I preferred playing sports and was not interested in sitting behind a sewing machine and thus (sadly) never developed my mom’s skill and patience, I did learn her sewing techniques, how to do other things precisely, and acquired an intense love and appreciation of fibers, fabrics, and textiles. I was intrigued by the patterns, the precision, the mathematics hidden in weaves, and mesmerized by the feeling of fine textiles — especially when they were woven or sewn by hand. Even as a toddler, I was drawn to the feeling of bedspreads my mom had at the time: the bumpy, precise patterns had a special feel unlike anything else. I acquired the appreciation for handmade articles and the uncanny ability to sense a handmade article at a distance.
This passion for textiles was mostly hidden until I went to college. My choice to major in graphic design surprised friends and family: I had been a very academic student in high school, then graduated early to play a sport professionally — certainly a major surprise to my teachers! — and after a few years, finally went to college to study art . . . and my favorite class was weaving?!?!
While at the University of Arizona, I had the great fortune to study with Gayle Wimmer, a well-known fiber artist and Fulbright Fellow who had worked with weavers in Italy, Poland, France, and Israel. Gayle and her classes were my biggest influence while I was at the U of A, and she became a friend and mentor of sorts. I qualify “mentor” only because while I loved weaving and fiber arts, I felt that it was not my calling to be a weaver — yet I knew somehow, weaving and fiber arts would play a significant role in my life. Later, I thought, perhaps I would collect rugs, not so much for the objects themselves, but as a way to honor the women who made them, and the work of the heart that went into the textiles.
I also studied a great deal of film history and photo history, even though I could not afford to take photography classes. Those were the days before digital, and the cost of cameras, 35mm film, paper, and developing solution was beyond my means. It would be later in life when I began my work in video and photography, for in university I could barely cover the cost of the special paper, markers, Exacto knife blades, and Letraset (go look up that word!) necessary to my graphic design studies.
In college, I also learned that the design style I had acquired from my mom and her brother — my uncle took me to his university design classes and started giving me his old Graphis magazines when I was about six years old — was considered “Swiss school” or “Italian school”. I thought this clean, simple, functional style was merely good design. My professors and other students disagreed. My final project was an identity kit for a fictitious Italian furniture maker, which I immaculately designed, precisely constructed by hand, graciously presented — and strongly defended.
I was told I would do well in Europe, but not in the United States. It wasn’t the last time I heard this!
Design style aside, I always felt I would end up living, or at least having a second home, outside the United States. For years, I wasn’t certain where this would be, but I knew it would become clear at the right time. In my travels I considered Kerala, India; but no — the ashram and India was not for me as a home. Touring Europe, I considered various places, yet my first visit to Torino and the Piedmont area in 2003 left me feeling that Italy was too smoke-filled and misogynistic for my tastes.
The threads hadn’t yet together to lead to Sardinia — and one of the most important was a nearly-forgotten recurring dream.
Throughout my childhood, I would often dream of a beach where the water was a deep, clear, unforgettable shade of blue, and the sky was another unique shade of azure. In the foreground, massive rocks tumbled down from my dream-vista to the water. In the distance, yet not too far away, rose the outline of a mountainous island. The beach image seemed familiar — somehow connected to a monastic lifetime — even though I did not know where the beach was, or where I had seen it before. The dream-beach was very unlike the shore of Lake Michigan, just two miles from my childhood home. The beach I saw in the dreams was more like those found in Northern California, but the colors, the rocks, the horizon, the light were not the same. The dream-beach was not a California beach. Nor was it a Hawaiian beach, a Florida beach, an English beach, or even a Greek beach — even though photos I saw of Greek beaches seemed more similar. If anything, I sensed that the dream-beach was in “Italy, but not Italy.”
The Weft (Threads Filling in the Story)
In 2006, a friend introduced me to the music of an amazing Italian singer and mystic. Even though I didn’t speak Italian at the time, I didn’t need to: the heart and soul of the singer, the voice, and the music struck me, took me inside, and eventually changed my life in ways I did not foresee.
After a few years of listening to the music with an understanding of the heart (supplemented by whatever bits of Spanish and Latin I remembered from school, and an occasional translation provided by the friend), I decided to study the Italian language. In 2012, I began studying and visited Milano. The next year, I read my first book in Italian: The singer’s biography. As expected, there were many words, phrases, and places I did not know and couldn’t understand by context.
Google and Wikipedia became my constant companions as I searched for definitions and place names: Sardinia — I knew where that was — but within Sardinia, Gallura?
I googled. I clicked a link in the search results. A new page opened. Electricity jolted up my spine, and my breathing stopped.